Giving Back in a Big WayJul 01, 2021 ● By Stephen Hunt
Whether in academics, business, sports or other fields, anyone who experiences success has someone in their past who planted an initial seed and provided early motivation for them to reach for the stars. For Mechelle Lewis Freeman, a former All-American track and field competitor at the University of South Carolina who went on to compete at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, that person was her mother, Chandra Lewis.
Growing up in Maryland, Ms. Freeman – who now calls Frisco home with her husband, David, and the couple’s two children – remembers her mother encouraging her and her twin sister, Mikisha, to become as well-rounded as possible by trying many different activities.
“She was always big on access so we could see, be exposed and figure our way from there. It’s always stuck with me that we try to give people opportunities so they can make decisions for themselves and see what’s out there, without being limited,” Ms. Freeman said. “Whether it’s an environmental limit or a mindset limit, whatever I can do to help remove barriers for people to reach their full potential, same as my mom did, that’s what keeps me going.”
Ms. Freeman remembers her mother exposing her and her sister to Girl Scouts, theater, dance and an array of sports including basketball, soccer and eventually track. It was through these sports that the Lewis twins realized something, she said. “When we did sports, we found out we were fast. We started out with basketball, and the basketball team forced us to play soccer so we could get in shape. That’s when we picked up the nickname `The Fast Twins.’ By the time we got to high school, (people) were like, `You have to try out for the track team.’”
At Oxon Hill High School in Maryland, Ms. Freeman lettered in soccer and track, excelling in the 55-meter and 300-meter dash and the 4 X 400-meter relay. However, she didn’t only star in athletics: She also played in the school band, served as senior class vice president and was named homecoming queen. She and her sister also earned track scholarships to the University of South Carolina. After earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in mass communications, injuries forced her to shelve her dream of making the Olympic team. She instead moved to New York and went to work for an advertising agency whose clients included the United Negro College Fund.
A dream realized
After two years in the Big Apple, Ms. Freeman said she felt drawn to return to the track. She moved to North Carolina to undertake a training regimen in hopes of reaching the Olympics. The results were impressive as she earned a gold medal as part of the 4x100 relay team at the 11th World Championships in Athletics in 2007 in Osaka, Japan. She also earned silver medals in the 100-meter dash and the 4x100-meter relay at the 2007 Pan American Games in Brazil.
The following year, she competed on Team USA’s 4x100 relay team at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. Although that team did not medal, the Olympic experience and what it meant remains with her. “It is a circle of honor that you hold for a lifetime. Once you’re inside the circle, you always have that badge of honor and you’re always going to respect and look out for anyone else you meet that carries that title as well,” she said. “It’s definitely a blessing. It’s something I’m very grateful for and appreciative that the stars lined up that I was chosen to be an Olympian. It’s something that I hold high … because in track and field, it’s the pinnacle of what you want to achieve in the sport. To say that you’re a part of that is a good thing.”
Like many Olympians, Ms. Freeman didn’t realize how many doors competing in the games would open for her after the competition ended. Her experiences in China helped lead her to work in Coca-Cola’s sports marketing and entertainment division, where she helped manage its sponsor activation at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. She also worked for a marketing agency in Phoenix that worked on the Super Bowl in 2015 and the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. Her experiences also allowed her to become a motivational speaker in 2008. She delivers her story of sacrifice, resilience, faith and triumph to scores of people.
TrackGirlz is born
In 2015, Ms. Freeman founded TrackGirlz, an organization to help girls reach their full potential through track and field. TrackGirlz’s mission is to provide access to mentorship, education and sports, which has been proven to benefit girls both academically and socially as well as to enhance their health.
“It’s all about empowering girls through track and field and using that as an access point for girls to develop mentally, physically, socially – the same things track and field did for me. Track and field changed my life,” Ms. Freeman said. “It’s the No. 1 participatory sport for high school girls and if it’s already a vessel, I just want to continue to use it as a highway for girls to reach their full potential. That’s what it’s all about.”
Initially, TrackGirlz held workshops for athletes with mentors, Olympic athletes, coaches and other high-level people to show them how to chart their own paths to success. This allowed Ms. Freeman to tap into the vast network of people she had met not only through track and field but also through her considerable experience in the business world.
TrackGirlz sold apparel to help fund its programs. However, in 2018, Ms. Freeman brought on a partner, Jennifer Nash Forrester, a former collegiate sprinter, as co-director and it became a 501c3 nonprofit organization.
“I had reached out to (Ms. Forrester) a couple years before to be a guest at one of our workshops. She always showed genuine interest in the vision and what I was doing,” Ms. Freeman said. “When I turned it into a nonprofit in 2018, she came on as a co-director for us to come together and have the structure and impact that we really needed. That’s when we shifted to offering grants for girls to be financially supported to participate in their local track and field clubs.”
Through its workshops and grant programs, TrackGirlz has made a big impact for girls competing in track and field, as well as for their families. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization went above and beyond its mission by providing young athletes and their parents with resources to help keep them engaged mentally and physically when track meets and practices weren’t being held regularly, if at all.
One of those parents is Luckie Daniels, whose teenage daughter, Jaiya, will compete this fall for perennial high school track powerhouse Chandler High School in the Phoenix area. (The family previously lived in New Mexico, which Luckie Daniels said lacked some academic and athletic opportunities.)
Without track in her life during the pandemic, Jaiya became disillusioned and wondered whether she’d continue to compete. That’s when TrackGirlz stepped in.
“As people were grappling with how to adjust to the pandemic, track wasn’t a high priority,” Luckie Daniels said. “It left us without resources and support for our athletes, who have a challenge finding the support they need, finding the mentors and the role models. TrackGirlz really filled that space. They just seemed to get in front of the crisis. I would send them messages that Jaiya’s struggling with being motivated or being in a community where there weren’t other African-American girls who were running and needing to have that connection. They were really good at always pulling her in and making sure we were informed and a part of the conversation.”
Jaiya is grateful that TrackGirlz has helped her remain engaged with the sport and made her feel that she has plenty of support. “They’ve treated me like I’m part of a community,” she said. “When I contacted TrackGirlz and got involved, I felt like I was part of a family. It made me feel really welcome. It helped me get out of my comfort zone by interacting with other girls and other people. It’s really helped me on my track journey so far.”
Luckie Daniels is also quick to credit TrackGirlz for her and Jaiya’s recent relocation to Arizona, and for the teen landing with a great track program.
“She’s been brought on by the state championship track team at Chandler High School, which has won 14 of the past 15 [state] championships,” Luckie Daniels said. “I don’t know that we would have gotten to this point had we not had TrackGirlz. That would have been the window where she might have lost interest, lost motivation and not returned. I really do attribute a lot of that motivation for staying in the game with your head focused on the future … to the work that Mechelle and TrackGirlz is doing. … Her program has meant a lot to us.”
For Ms. Freeman, who is also the assistant relays coach for the USA Track & Field national teams, helping young athletes like Jaiya is the reason she started TrackGirlz. “Just seeing a tangible outcome, making a difference in someone’s life (is why I do this),” she said. “If we can help expose them to something they want to do, then I feel great that we’re providing that avenue for them. This is fulfilling just to see the outcomes and the girls doing something that they want to do. We’re able to support that.”
Longtime Frisco resident Stephen Hunt is a lifelong baseball fan who is incredibly blessed to work on the Rangers TV broadcast as a statistician and alongside so many talented professionals.