Sprinting and leaping gracefully over 33-inch hurdles in front of giant crowds comes easily for Brianna Rollins, but public speaking does not.
So, the soft-spoken Olympic champion hurdler from Liberty City admitted she was “very nervous” Thursday morning as she addressed an auditorium full of students at Miami Northwestern High, her alma mater.
The school, Miami-Dade County School Board, and several local politicians declared Thursday “Brianna Rollins Day,” and celebrated her Olympic gold medal with various proclamations and plaques. Rollins, wearing a USA dress and the gold medal around her neck, smiled shyly as speaker after speaker heaped praise on her.
When it was her turn to speak, Rollins, who graduated from Northwestern in 2009, kept her remarks short, but powerful — much like her.
“This medal is so much bigger than me,” she said “I’m here to inspire each and every one of you that no matter who you are or how old you are, if you have a dream you want to achieve, never, ever give up,” Rollins said, as the captivated Northwestern students listened.
“I joined the track team here and I didn’t know anything about track. Coach [Carmen Jackson] took a chance on me, and that chance took me so far and I’m so grateful she gave me that opportunity. If she hadn’t, I don’t know where I’d be. Track has taken me to places I never imagined.”
Among the dignitaries who attended the ceremony were Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and school board vice chairwoman Dr. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, a proud Northwestern Bull who gave an impassioned speech.
“Can anything good come out of Liberty City?” she roared into the microphone. The crowd replied with a loud cheer and resounding “Yes!”
Carvalho reminded the audience that Rollins’ best time of 12.26 seconds is the fourth-fastest time in history. She also led a USA sweep at the Rio Olympics, something that had never been done. Carvalho joked that the only thing he contributed to Rollins’ success is that he signed her diploma in 2009.
He went on to congratulate Jackson, the legendary coach who has led her teams to 13 state titles. He recommended that the school name its track, or some other part of the athletic department, for Rollins and Jackson.
Jackson took the microphone next, and delivered inspirational words to the students.
“This shy little girl,’’ she began, pointing over at Rollins, “has a story very similar to yours. She grew up in the same neighborhood, sat in the same chairs, the same desks, walked the same hallways. We each have a pre-written destination, and nothing can stop you. Even if you have no mother in the house or no father in the house or no shelter, or money for books and uniforms, that shouldn’t stop you. I was predestined to come to Northwestern to push kids to their destiny.”
That is exactly what she did with Rollins, the eldest of seven children.
“She was one of my backbones,” Rollins said. “I was kind of rebellious at the time, but she pushed me so hard. Even when I didn’t want to listen, she was still there, continued to support me. I love her so much for that.”
Rollins, who lives in Los Angeles but still spends a lot of time with family in Liberty City, plans to use her new higher-profile platform to curb violence in inner cities.
“We have to rise above the violence in this community,” she said. “If kids can realize life is so much bigger than the streets, that they can do anything they put their mind to and there is another side of life they can see, there could be a big change. I want to help bring that message to the kids.”
Thursday was a good start.