Olympic sprinter Aleia Hobbs’ life changed in the NICU
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
So far in 2023, Aleia Hobbs became the second-fastest 60m sprinter in history and has gone undefeated in indoor and outdoor track races, becoming one of the women to watch ahead of August’s world championships and the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Hobbs, an Olympic 4x100m relay silver medalist in Tokyo, discussed her goals for Paris, the U.S. women’s 100m picture and her deep Louisiana roots. The New Orleans native and former LSU standout also details the phone call that changed her life and her experience being a new mom after adopting son Amir last June,
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Olympic Talk: How did you get your start in track and field?
Aleia Hobbs: It all started with me running from a dog. I was getting out of a church van, and someone said there was a dog. Everyone else got back in the van, and I took off running. I don’t even remember what kind of dog it was. I just saw that it had four legs, and I didn’t like it, so I took off running. After that, everyone was coming up to me and telling me I was fast. I was a kid, so I didn’t think much of it. A couple of days later, one of the booster moms came to my house and asked me if I wanted to run track.
My very first race, I was just gone. Every race after that I was just running, beating everybody. I’ve been running ever since then.
Do you remember when you first fell in love with the sport?
Hobbs: The first time I got on the track. I did AAU track when I was 9. I remember winning all of the Junior Olympic races and having all of these records at 11 and 12. I do have a different style. I had a big mohawk, an afro and braids when I was younger, and people would always remember me. At meets, people of all ages -- kids and adults -- would come up to me and ask for pictures and autographs, and that made a big difference.
You turned pro in 2018. Did you ever imagine as a kid that this would be your life? When did becoming a professional athlete become a dream for you?
Hobbs: No. I didn’t think that at first. I was just running to run. High school is when it really hit. I started knowing what things were and realizing how fast I actually was. I didn’t have a plan to go pro or anything at that time. My goal was to get to college. I got that done, and it was when I was in college that I realized I could go pro.
My freshman year of college, I ran 11.13 (seconds for the 100m, ranking third in the world among U20 women). I was seeing pros around me because we had a pro group at LSU, but it didn’t really hit me until I ran 10.85 my junior year (ranking fifth in the world among all ages). I had (microfracture) knee surgery after my freshman year. My sophomore year I didn’t run that fast at all, so I wasn’t really thinking about that. It was after that 10.85 that I knew if I really locked in and did what I needed to do, it could happen. Going into my senior year, I had a whole different mindset. I knew how the game went and how important consistency was. I didn’t lose a 100m race at all my senior year.
Fast forward to the Tokyo Olympic Trials. What exactly happened with the false start in the semifinals? Before you even walked off the track, the tears were flowing.
Hobbs: I was having a great season that year. I was consistently running 10.9, so I knew going into that race I was ready. It was my first Olympic Trials because I’d had knee surgery. I felt like everything I did that year -- the consistent times -- went down the drain. That was my very first thought, and once I had that thought, that’s when the tears came.
You were able to run the final under protest. How many minutes before the race did you find out? What do you remember thinking before and after the race?
Hobbs: I sat there and cried for I don’t know how long, then I finally went to the back and got my stuff. I sat there and cried for 10 minutes, then one of my teammates came and got me. I found my coach and agent, and they were telling me to keep on warming up because they were going to protest. I was trying to stay warm and jog, but I was crying hard. I felt like I could barely move my body.
Mentally I was trying to stay in it because I knew there was a possibility (that I could run), but it was hard because I knew what happened. All the tears were draining my body. I kept asking my coach and agent if they heard anything, and they said no. The final was about to start, and they told me to just come to the call room, where I was just sitting and waiting. The officials walked all of the other athletes out to the track, and at that point I started crying again because I was thinking, if they still haven’t called my name, I’m not running.
I’m sitting in the call room by myself, and then about two to three minutes after the officials went to the track, they told me I could run. I jumped up, put my shoes on and ran onto the track. I didn’t have a bib because after I got disqualified I ripped it off. They ended up finding me one and using a paper holder to pin it on me.
At this point, everyone is standing in the blocks ready to run. My nerves were getting bad, and I was trying to calm down and get into that racing mindset. When I ran onto the track, everybody started cheering, but it was hard. I finished seventh. I was so upset, but I was happy that I was able to actually run despite all of that. I knew I didn’t run what I could have ran.
Editor’s Note: The top six in the 100m usually make the Olympic team for the 4x100m relay pool. Hobbs was upgraded to sixth after original winner Sha’Carri Richardson was disqualified after testing positive for marijuana. Hobbs got on the Olympic team for the relay.
Walk me through your experience in Tokyo.
Hobbs: When I got the Team USA kit, I was like, “Wow, I’m really on the team!” It was different because of COVID. Everybody that had been to an Olympics before told me that it wasn’t the full experience.
How special was that 4x100m silver medal?
Hobbs: When we stepped on the track, I was just looking around. There was no one in the crowd, but I was like, wow, this is literally the biggest race of my life. To be a part of that and contribute to the team was a blessing. It was great to get that round done and let them finish it in the final.
(Editor’s Note: Hobbs ran in the preliminary heats, then was replaced for the Olympic final by one of the higher-finishing sprinters from trials.)
What would having the opportunity to represent the U.S. at your second Olympic Games mean to you, and what will be different?
Hobbs: Paris will be different because it won’t be a COVID year, and I will be prepared. I was prepared (in Tokyo), but how it happened was just different. This time, we’re going to get some things done in the 100m (individually) and for the relay, too.
Can you talk about what it’s like being a Black woman on the world stage?
Hobbs: I love that fact I get to represent. I get a lot of hateful comments and messages from people calling me transgender, and that bothers me a lot. Especially since now I’m running faster. A lot of people are seeing me for the first time and are saying, “That’s a man. That’s not a Black woman.” Mentally that messes with me, but I try to put that to the side. I’m going to still do what I do and hold it down for the Black women.
Recommended Reading: Hobbs recently spoke with Olympics.com on her experience with social media abuse and body-shaming. Click here for more, and for more on how transphobia can disproportionately impact athletes of color of all gender identities, visit GLAAD and Athlete Ally.
Thank you for sharing that. Switching gears, tell me about your time at LSU.
Hobbs: It’s home. It’s family. I knew I wanted to go to LSU literally all my life. I didn’t even go on an official visit. We have our state meets at LSU every year, so after one of those meets I stayed on Saturday night, did a visit on Sunday and that was it. That was all I needed. I had a good freshman year. I made nationals (and finished sixth in the NCAA 100m). I had knee surgery after. My junior year, I ran a PR of 10.85. Senior year, I won NCAAs in the 60m, 100m and 4x100m relay. I went to USAs and won, then I had knee surgery again.
How hard was it to recover from those knee surgeries mentally and physically?
Hobbs: It was really, really hard. The first one -- my left one -- it was bothering me for years. After my junior year, it stopped, but then it started hurting again. When we finally got it pain-free, the right one started bothering me. I think it was at my first Diamond League pro race when I first started feeling the pain. I had to get another (microfracture) knee surgery for the same exact thing.
It was very hard to deal with mentally, but I always tell myself to never lose faith. You’re going to run into road bumps, but how are you going to get around it? I’ve dealt with adversity since I was young, so that’s made me stronger. After my first knee surgery, there were times I thought I would never run fast ever again, but I didn’t let that stop me.
Going back to Louisiana, you’ve lived there for most of your life. How special is that place to you?
Hobbs: Not too many people come out of there, sports-wise. There’s so much adversity. The fact that I was able to do it is good because I know a lot of little kids are looking up to me. Just the fact that I could actually show them it’s possible.
You were 9 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit. How were you and your family impacted?
Hobbs: My family and I had to pack up our stuff and get on a bus that drove us to a shelter in Mississippi. I remember feeling scared and confused. That was the first big hurricane that I experienced where we had to actually leave. The shelter was packed with people. We slept on cots with not a lot of space separating us from other families. It was bad. There were fights. ... Our house didn’t get messed up too bad, but when we finally got home, our house didn’t have electricity for a couple of days. I lived on west bank. so we didn’t get as much damage as everyone else did.
You became a mom last summer. Tell me about the phone call that changed your life.
Hobbs: My son was born June 15th, 2022, so the call came on June 16th. Someone that my girlfriend’s mom knew had a baby. She couldn’t take care of him, so she had him and left him in the hospital. His name was “Baby Boy.” (My girlfriend’s mom) said, “He’s in the hospital by himself. Do you guys want him?” We decided to talk about it and see, but it was an instant yes. He was in there by himself -- a newborn baby that came two months early -- so he was in the NICU. We were all for it. We would go to the hospital every day and go see him. They had COVID protocols, so at times it was hard to get in and out, but shortly after that phone call we were getting the ball rolling to get him into our custody. We had to be foster parents first, and then it was the adoption process.
Were you and your partner actively looking to adopt at that time?
Hobbs: We did plan on it, but we didn’t think it was going to happen the way it did. I like that it happened this way because we got the blessing just in a different form.
Can you describe what it was like meeting Amir for the first time?
Hobbs: Awww, he was so small, oh my goodness. He was in the (NICU incubator). They had sent us pictures before, but actually getting to see him, I remember thinking, “Wow, you’re my son? You’re actually my son.” The first time I held him I was scared. He had these wires on him still, so I didn’t want to accidently pull a wire, but I just held him and sat completely still. I held him for at least an hour, not moving at all, just holding him and looking at him. I felt instant unconditional love.
What has Amir taught you, and what lessons do you hope to teach him?
Hobbs: Patience. He’s taught me a lot of patience. He’s taught me about strength. There were days where I’d be tired. He was sick, too, for a while. For at least a month, he had RSV and was feeling horrible. That’s my child, so I did everything I had to do to take care him.
What do you wish people knew about the foster care and adoption process?
Hobbs: It’s actually a process, but it’s definitely worth it. I didn’t even know, but there’s so many kids who actually need homes. I’m all for it. I’m probably going to adopt more, honestly.
How many kids do you want?
Hobbs: That’s a good question. I kind of want a lot. Maybe about four.
You have a close relationship with former LSU teammate Mikiah Brisco. Can you tell me about that?
Hobbs: Mikiah and I have been running with and against each other since we were maybe 12 or 13 years old. We’re both from Louisiana. If she has a bad race, I’m there for her. If I have a bad race, she’s there for me. We were able to fix each other’s weaknesses.
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