A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Miki Barber: Keepin’ It Movin’
MARYLAND — While the life of a professional track and field athlete may often seem glamorous when viewed from the outside, the athletes themselves will tell you that behind the quest for Olympic and World Championship medals, there is the constant travel, the debilitating injuries, and the difficulties of finding the right coach, the right agent, a solid support system, and sponsorship that will further their careers.
A few days prior to this past weekend’s USA Outdoor Championships in Indianapolis, I sat and talked with one such athlete — 26-year-old Miki Barber, a 2003 graduate of the University of South Carolina who currently lives and trains in Raleigh, North Carolina with her twin sister Lisa.
At the USA’s, Miki made the finals in both the 100 and 200 meter dashes, and finished sixth in each. In our conversation, Miki spoke at length of the ups and downs of her track career and the challenges she has overcome as a professional track athlete.
Miki began running track as a 14-year-old freshman at Montclair High School in northern New Jersey. In her first meet, she ran a 12.3 in the 100 and a 59 split in the 4×400 meter relay. “After that,” she said, “I just kept running the 400.”
Miki credits her Montclair coaches Ray Spivey and Doris Ellis with making track a fun experience. Coach Spivey was able to instill discipline and good work habits in his athletes while maintaining a light-hearted atmosphere.
“Some coaches,” Miki said, “might train kids too hard, so the kids never look at it as fun because the coaches put too much pressure on the athletes. I think that all young people need something that is their outlet, and a coach to help them get better, and to have a good time at getting better.”
In high school, “the Barber twins,” as they are commonly known now, were simply Miki and Lisa. “We were always cool with everybody,” Miki said. “We didn’t walk around with our varsity jackets on. We didn’t really talk about track until we got on the track. That’s where we handled our business. But we didn’t really hang out with the track team off the track. We did, but not all of our friends were athletes. They were just students.”
“Then once we got home, we didn’t talk about track. We had a good time, and that’s what I think is important. We were always cool with people, and people were always cool with us.” To Miki, being an ordinary person at school and home, and having parents who didn’t put any extra pressure on her, made it easier to deal with the high expectations at state and national championship meets.
The peak of Miki’s high school career came in her senior year, at the National Scholastic Outdoor Championships at North Carolina State University. It was emotional for her on several levels. “I’ll never forget that meet,” she reflected. “One of my closest friends died that weekend. Her name was Mikell. She got killed in a car accident.”
Mikell had just moved back to New Jersey after living in California for a while. She reunited with her old friends Miki and Lisa the night before they left for the meet. It was the last time they would ever see her. Unaware that their best friend had passed away, Miki and Lisa, “in a weird way,” still felt her presence as they dominated the sprints. Lisa won the 100 and 200 meter dashes, and Miki won the 400 in a meet record 52.56.
“That was a good moment,” Miki recalled. “Both of my coaches were there, my dad came down, and my mom was on the phone and she was crying. I thought she was crying because she was happy that we won. She didn’t tell us what happened. And we were like, ‘How’s Mikell doing? How’s Mikell?’ And our mom was like, ‘She’s all right.’ She never told us what happened until we got home.”
“But I think Mikell was kind of like an angel watching over us that weekend, because my sister and I both pr’ed. My junior year I came down and ran a 55, so to run 52 was a huge improvement. So that was one of our best, and saddest, track meets ever.”
After graduating from Montclair in 1998, Miki and Lisa brought their fast legs, good looks, and northern flair to the rural, country setting of Columbia, SC, where they would enter the next phase of their track careers under the guidance of revered USC head coach Curtis Frye. So how did these two Jersey girls wind up at a college so far from home? “That’s a funny thing,” Miki said, “because we went to the Youth Games at USC when we were freshmen in high school, and it was so hot. I was like, I will never, ever, ever come here. ‘Cause it was hot, and it was country, and we didn’t know what we were doing.”
“And everybody had funny accents, and we had funny accents to them. We thought they dressed funny, they thought we dressed funny. Then, I don’t know, senior year, they had a good recruiting class. I met [quarter-miler] Demetria Washington at the NSOC at NC State. And I was thinking, She’s going there, and she seems cool. And Coach Frye — I met him at the Penn Relays, and I liked him. He seemed like a good guy to me, and we hit it off really well. So I was like, I’m going to South Carolina.”
The twin sisters were recruited by many other universities, and did visit a few, including Ohio State, Villanova, and UNC-Chapel Hill, but “we didn’t feel like we fit in,” Miki said. “It was either too boring or too cold.” Also, many of the other programs recruiting them didn’t have two scholarships to offer. Miki and Lisa had no intention of attending different schools.
“For what? I don’t want a new roommate that I don’t know. Lisa and I used to fight back in the day, but when we got to high school we realized that you need your sister, your family, to keep you in order. We’ve had people to say to us, ‘When are you gonna move apart?’ But why should we? When the chips are down, we know that we’re there for each other, and that makes both of us a better person.”
For Miki, the biggest adjustment to college life came in the classroom. “Coming out of high school I had a 3.6, and I was always a pretty decent student. Then when I got to college, I would sleep all day, so I got a 1.9 my first semester. That’s when I was like, Maybe I need to step my game up.”
“It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I realized, hey, I like writing, I like some of these classes. I made the Dean’s list, I was raising my hand in class. I was into it. I realized that I could balance it all — I could learn, get faster, get stronger, and make friendships.”
Miki had no such problems with motivation on the track. With the 2000 Olympic Games only a year away, she saw herself as a potential Olympian, and was determined to become one of the best 400 meter runners in the world. “I was trying to make my mark,” she said.
She did so in a big way at the SEC championships, where she won in 51.21. At the NCAA Outdoor Championships, she finished second in 51.66 behind Suzianne Reid of Texas. That summer, at the World University Games, she got her personal best down to 51.03 in another second-place finish.
Much of Miki’s motivation came from a desire to prove the doubters wrong. Many people assumed that, because of her size (5-feet-3), she would never make it as a quarter-miler, since most world-class quarter-milers were 5-7 or taller. Among the doubters were some of her own teammates and coaches. Their lack of confidence in her confused her, and it hurt.
“In high school,” she said, “I had a lot of support. My coach wasn’t gonna tell me I was too short or anything. Then when I got to college everyone was talking like I wasn’t good enough. I was like, What do you mean? I’ve been running these fast times, so what do you mean I’m not gonna make it?”
The lack of faith others had in her affected her self-esteem and forced her to become more self-sufficient. “You don’t have to be a certain body type to run a certain time,” she said, “but people drilled it into my head for so long that I wasn’t built for the 400 that I was like, Well maybe I’m not. They’d see somebody who was way taller than me and say, ‘Well, she’s taller than you so she’s supposed to beat you. Why isn’t she beating you?’ I had to get that out of my head because if you don’t have self-confidence, you’re not gonna win.”
“I don’t care how tall or small you are, if you don’t have it within yourself, or if you keep making excuses for yourself, then you’re not gonna get better.
I could’ve easily been like, Oh, I am too short for the 400. I’m not supposed to run that fast. That’s what I heard every day. But my stride is long. I get around those curves just like everybody else. Sometimes people can build you up to break you down, so you just have to be strong within yourself.”
In her sophomore year, Miki continued to excel. At the SEC’s she won both the 200 and 400, and ran a leg on USC’s winning 4×400 relay team. At NCAA’s, she won the 400 in 51.14 and again ran a leg on the winning 4×400 team. At the Olympic Trials a month later, she finished fifth in 51.17, earning herself a spot as an alternate for the 4×400 in Sydney, Australia. That team won the gold medal, but Miki didn’t get a chance to run, not even in the prelims, as that was the year that Marion Jones, in a quest for five gold medals, was chosen to run both the 4×100 and the 4×400.
Still, Miki did make the trip to Sydney and had a very enjoyable experience there. “I was nineteen years old,” she said, “going overseas, meeting the crocodile hunter, Muhammad Ali, Kevin Garnett. Most 19-year-olds don’t get to have those kinds of experiences or meet those kind of people. So it really did a lot for my confidence to be in that type of environment.”
Miki’s junior year started off equally promising, as the USC women set an indoor record in the 4×400 at the NCAA’s. Individually, Miki finished third in the 400 and fourth in the 200. Outdoors, she won the SEC 400 in a new personal best of 50.63. But that was as fast as she would run for the rest of the year. At the NCAA’s she only finished fourth in the 400 in a disappointing 53.00.
At the USA’s, she finished fifth, then went on to run a leg in the semi-final heat of the 4×400 at the World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta. Throughout much of the latter part of the season, she was running in pain.
“I felt something wrong in my toe,” she said. Over the years, she had regularly run all three sprint relays — the 4×100, 4×200, and 4×400 — besides running her open events. But now, because of the nagging pain, her workload was being reduced. In September of 2001, at the beginning of what would’ve been her final year, she went to get an MRI and was told that she had a stress fracture in her toe. And so began a long series of injuries that forced her to redshirt the indoor and outdoor 2002 season, and ultimately threatened her career.
At this point, she had to deal with some questionable decisions made by her doctors. Instead of putting her foot in a cast, they assured her that her toe would heal on its own in a couple months. “And I was like, ‘It hurts when I walk. You sure I don’t need to be in a cast or anything? I don’t need to be in a boot?’ And they were like, ‘No, it’ll heal.’ And then May [of 2002] comes around, and that’s when they put me in a cast.”
A month later, the USC women’s team won the first ever national championship in the school’s history, in any sport. Lisa finished second in the 400 in a monstrous personal best of 50.87, and she came in fourth in the 200.
The 4×100 and 4×400 relay teams were also victorious, and freshman Lashinda Demus won the 400 meter hurdles. As for Miki, she felt joyous over her teammates’ success, but heartbroken not to be a part of it. “Lisa ran the race of her life, dropped two seconds from her personal best, and I’m in the stands in a cast.”
That Lisa “dedicated that year to me” provided little comfort as Miki began to realize that her career was in jeopardy. She had thought that after making the Olympic team in 2000, winning an NCAA championship, running under 51 in the 400, that she would be running in the 49′s before graduating, and that she’d make enough money to retire by the age of 25.
“That was a big lesson I had to learn — that things don’t always go your way. You have to persevere through the hard times. Our parents taught us that if you don’t work hard for what you want then you won’t get it.”
In 2003 Miki’s injury woes continued. Her ankle was bothering her, and after running 400′s in the 51.9 range indoors, she strained her hamstring and had a subpar outdoor season. Meanwhile, the pain in the ankle was getting worse. After graduating in the spring of ’03, Miki went to Alabama that December to meet with a specialist. On the 18th of that month, she had surgery on her ankle. Six weeks later she was back running. She was moving fast in her workouts, “but it still hurt,” she said.
“And they were like, ‘It’s all right, don’t worry about it.’ So I tried to make the Olympic team in ’04 in the 400. I had six months to get ready, and I was like, I’m gonna make this team within the next six months. I’m gonna do it. Then I went and I couldn’t make it out the first curve because my ankle was killing me.” So it was back to the doctor for more tests.
These were hard times for Miki And Lisa. Both had graduated from USC and were now living on their own. “We didn’t get monthly allowances,” Miki said. “We had to come up with our own money. Lisa was like, ‘We’re gonna make it because we’ve got to.’” But Lisa got dropped by Nike shortly after the 2003 World Championships, where she had won a gold medal in the 4×400. This was the Barbers’ first taste of the harsh business side of the sport.
“She got a gold medal in ’03,” Miki recalled, “and then in ’04 they cut her. For nothing. No explanation. People who didn’t even make the world championship team were still under contract. And what Nike was giving her wasn’t a big amount of money at all. You could go work at Burger King for that. And that’s when her agent told her to move to Raleigh.”
Though they moved together, Miki and Lisa would not train together. Lisa, who was planning to switch her focus to the 100 meter dash, would train with sprint technician Trevor Graham, and Miki would train with former Olympic quarter-miler Antonio Pettigrew. To make ends meet, Miki was making a little income from a contract she had with Dada Supreme — an urban footwear company.
She also saved some money her grandfather had given her back in 2000. Lisa “made money from the world championship team, and we got a little cheap apartment for like $500 a month. And we had our car, and we just saved money. We knew how to bargain-shop, I liked to decorate, so I knew how to make our house look really nice.”
But Miki’s injury situation prevented her and Pettigrew from forming a close bond. The ankle pain persisted with a tenacity that was breaking her spirit. “In December of ’04,” she said, “I went to Dr. Nunley at Duke. He was pulling my ankle and it was clicking at the socket. I asked him if that was normal, and he was like, ‘I’m pretty sure you have medial ankle instability.’ He did an MRI, told me I did have medial ankle instability, and that I’d have to get surgery again. I was like, ‘You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me.”
Miki had torn her deltoid ligament — the biggest ligament in the foot. So in March of 2005 she underwent surgery again, “and that was the worst pain of my life. My cast felt like it was 3,000 pounds. I couldn’t walk for three months. Then I got out the cast in the summer and started doing my rehab about once a week. Then I started doing it on my own because once a week wasn’t gonna work.”
“I got a membership at Beyond Fitness and I was in there every day working out by myself. That’s when everybody was like, ‘Well, Mick, it’s been three years, you know, you might wanna give it up. Go to plan B.’ My parents were saying this. My agent, my friends. They weren’t being mean, but it was like, come on, you’ve had two ankle surgeries, you’ve been in a cast on and off from ’03 to ’05. But I was like, No, I’m gonna give it one more year.”
While Miki was struggling, Lisa was thriving. For the first time in her life, she was becoming a true student of her event, as Graham was teaching her to think like a sprinter. “Before,” Miki said, “she didn’t really care about her form, or lifting weights. But now she would come home and just die from their workouts. They were doing crazy amounts of weightlifting, and she’d be at the track for like six hours.
And I was like, ‘What are you dong for that long? Why is it taking you so long to work out?’ Then she’d come home and do a whole bunch of crunches. She’d be saying, ‘Miki, you gotta put your fingers like this, and you gotta do that, and when you come back you’re not dorsi-flexing, so you’re doing that wrong.’ So I was like, ‘Okay Lise, you’re really trying to do it here.’”
Inspired by Lisa’s example, Miki resolved to strengthen her ankle and get back to competition. She met Stephen Hayes and started training under him in November of 2005. “I made sure I got in shape before I came to him,” Miki said. “I made sure my ankle was strong, and I did that on my own. I didn’t have a workout, so I just stayed on the elliptical machine. Every day I rode for like an hour, or I’d do the bike workout for an hour.”
“Or do all these little ankle exercises. At home, Lisa would help me stretch it out and do more exercises. So by November — I was still limping in September — but by November I got better and better, and then I started running indoors– the 60 meter dash– just to stay off the curves a little bit, and I was like, I’m gonna be a sprinter! I ran 7.32 at the USA indoor meet, got fourth place. So I was pretty happy, because I didn’t think I’d be back on the track at all.”
The switch to the short sprints was meant to be temporary, but fear of dealing with tight curves on a soft ankle made the move permanent. The injuries had also increased her sense of urgency. The pressure to succeed, to improve her financial situation, was causing stress problems and weight loss. “I didn’t have a contract at the time,” Miki said.
“I was like, I’m gonna make it, I need to get some money. I’m broke, so this is not a game to me anymore. I was really anxious, really tense, and I guess I had a snappy way about me. People’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s just track.’ But it’s really not just track. When you have your livelihood on the line, when you have to take care of yourself and you don’t have health insurance and you have big bills over your head, it gets a little serious.”
Miki’s big breakthrough came at the 2006 USA Outdoor Championships. In the semi-finals she ran in the same heat as Marion Jones, and the two ran side by side for most of the way until Jones edged out a victory by a mere four hundredths of a second. “And that’s when Nike got interested. I guess they were like, ‘Okay, she can do something if she’s up there with Marion. That’s what helped me get my contract — that semi-final. It wasn’t like some huge deal, but it wasn’t pennies.”
In 2007, Miki and Lisa are back together again. They have different sponsors (Lisa runs for Adidas), but they train together, and they coach each other. But while Lisa has become a masterful short sprinter, Miki is still learning the nuances of the 60 and 100. As Miki explained, “My start has always been slow from running the 400. I have a quarter-miler’s start, a technical start, and Lisa has a huge, fast, powerful explosion out of the blocks. So that’s what we’re working on all the time — my start.”
“Now it’s coming together. I ran 11.14 at the Reebok Invitational [in early June] in New York. That was a big pr for me. I’m very happy about that. So now I’m heading into USA’s. I’ve been getting blasted a little bit, getting sixth at [the] Prefontaine [Classic], but I’m not gonna worry about that. I’m gonna go into this meet with a positive attitude.”
Miki knows that coaching herself may not be the ideal setup, but it has worked thus far. She is very practical in her assessment of her situation. “A coach and athlete’s relationship is very important,” she said, “and sometimes it kind of makes you sad when you don’t have that bond. It’s like, Why? Why not? But if you don’t have it, you gotta keep it movin’. You still gotta do what you gotta do. At the end of the day, your coach can’t run your race for you. You have to pull it out yourself. You can practice all you want, and look really good in practice, but once you get on that line, all that goes out the window.”
“You get nervous, you get the jitters, so then you have to really focus. Right now, I think I can do it. As long as I believe that, I don’t have to wait on somebody to tell me I can do it. No one’s told me, ‘Miki, you’re gonna be number one.’ No one’s ever told me that since high school. That was the last time someone really had confidence in me as far as people that should be believing in me. With all the injuries I’ve been through, I shouldn’t even be on the track right now. Most people don’t come back after two foot surgeries or being in a cast for three years.”
“Mentally, it beats you up. You go from being an NCAA champion to being nothing. So you’re thinking, what should I do? Where should I go? Should I get a job? It’s like I tell younger athletes, life isn’t always how you think it’s gonna be. You think you’re gonna grow up and have all these plans and everything’s gonna work out perfectly for you. When you’re young, you really think that it is that way. But you never know what’s gonna happen.”
The business side of track is something Miki would rather do without, but she recognizes that it’s a part of the sport that won’t ever go away. She has learned to be self-sufficient, and to choose her friends carefully. “Everyone says it’s a business,” she said, “but you really have to watch what you do, what you say, because people will try to get over on you. I’ve had to learn how to protect myself. Sometimes people will be like, ‘Miki, why do you put up a wall?’ Because you have to.”
“If you don’t protect yourself, people will run over you. I’m a nice person, I give people a fair chance. I’ve made some mistakes along the way, but I’ve also made a lot of good decisions. It’s a give and take, live and learn type thing. You really can’t trust too many people. And the people you can trust, you really have to cherish them. In the business world, people use business as an excuse to lie, to take something away from you. They’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s just business, don’t take it personal.’ Whatever.”
But there is an upside to running track professionally that Miki acknowledges. The travel, for instance, though exhausting, has opened her eyes and broadened her perspectives. “I’ve been to Serbia, I was in Hengelo. These are places I would have never gotten to go to on my own. So I have to appreciate it. There are certain things you have to be thankful for.”
“You see little kids over there picking up litter or garbage or whatever just to get your autograph. They’re like, ‘Wow! I got someone’s autograph!’ They don’t know who you are, they just know you run track. And the relationships are unique in track because you’re all going through the same things.”
All the injuries Miki has endured have made her realize how precious her days as a professional athlete truly are. “Every time I step on that track, whether it’s for practice or a meet, I’m like, Thank you Jesus that I’m here. Just to have my health…. I know it could’ve gone a whole different way. I could’ve really stayed in my rut and never come outside again just because I felt like my world was coming to an end. I know I’m not going to be able to run forever. That’s why I work hard at what I do.”
In her younger days, Miki, like most budding track fans, saw only the glamorous side of the sport. “I would’ve never thought track was the way it was when I was watching Gwen Torrence and Gail Devers back in the day. All the stuff that goes on behind the scenes — they went through it just as much as we go through it.”
Once her track days are over, Miki sees herself using the advertising degree she earned from USC. She also has other interests she’d like to pursue. Even now, she does not look at track as her only outlet. Among her other interests are writing, cooking, and interior design.
“I always had a passion for writing,” she said, “but most people don’t know that. They think I just run track all day or whatever. I like writing poetry, short stories. I took a creative writing course my freshman year and got A’s on all my papers. But I never really had that confidence in myself, so I would write things on my own and then read them to myself. I’d never want to show people. But then I learned to start taking constructive criticism.”
Miki has learned that whether she is learning how to improve her start in the 100, how to edit a poem, or how to come up with a new recipe, it’s important to ask questions, because “I know I can’t do everything on my own.” But her ultimate mantra is one of self-reliance: “At the end of the day, it all falls back on me. As long as you keep it movin’, that’s all you can do.”