Lynna Irby Conquered Race Anxiety In Her Freshman Season

By Johanna Gretschel - MileSplit Correspondent

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University of Georgia sprinter Lynna Irby enjoyed what can only be defined as a dream season for a college freshman in 2018.

A now four-time All-American, she won the NCAA outdoor title in the 400m with the second-fastest time in collegiate history-49.80-while helping the Bulldogs win their first-ever team title in track and field at the NCAA Indoor Championships.

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But perhaps her biggest victory took place off the track. After placing third in the 200m and 400m at NCAA Indoors, the Indiana native started consulting with a sports psychologist in order to conquer the pre-race anxiety that has plagued her since high school.

Berths at the 2019 World Championships and 2020 Olympic Games are a realistic goal for the college sophomore. But Irby knows anything can happen in track and field and her foremost goal is to watch her NCAA throne.

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How was your first race back? [She ran 300m in 37.14 at the UAB Blazer Invitational]

I ran the 300m. I thought it was pretty okay for a season opener. It wasn't fast as my last year's season opener, but this year we're focusing on long term goals so I wasn't so disappointed. I was just excited for the season to start.

What do you remember about this time last year, getting ready for your first track race as a freshman in college? Can you describe some of your emotions and feelings?

I was extremely nervous because I just wanted to do very well. The transition, I would say, went pretty smooth because my support system was so strong in high school and the coaches here [at Georgia] kept that same foundation for me. It wasn't a huge difference.

I remember being very nervous for the very first race. I didn't look at the heat sheets. When I went on the line and there were pros and there were big college names, I was like, 'oh my gosh, I saw these girls race on TV' and I was really nervous. Versus this year, it's more like, I've been here before, I know a little bit more what I can do and how I perform in a college setting. Last year, I was a deer in headlights and this year I'm like, 'I know I can perform and I can roll with these girls.'

I'm more relaxed.

What would you tell yourself now, if you could go back?

I would tell myself to have more fun and not to freak out so much. I freaked out a lot last year, especially when I felt like I didn't perform as well as I could have. But I was a freshman and it was all a learning experience so I didn't need to put that much pressure on myself.

When you were going into your first SEC and NCAA Championships last year, what was your mindset like?

My first SEC Championships, I just wanted to place well. I said, 'just go ahead and run your PR,' this is supposed to be the fastest conference in the nation. I didn't have high expectations. For my first NCAAs [outdoors] after prelims in the 400m, I was just in my zone, not nervous. I was just excited and I had this mindset like, I've worked all year really hard for this moment and this is the fun part, this is the part I've been waiting for and I just wanted to go out with a bang.

What was the difference in your mindset between indoor and outdoors NCAAs?

So, for indoor, I didn't really take it as, 'you've worked all year for this,' I felt like I fell into the hype of all the big names like Sydney [McLaughlin] and Kendall [Ellis] and Sharrika [Barnett] and Brionna Thomas and all the other big names in the final. I was caught up, like, 'I wonder if I'll place,' I didn't take it as, 'okay, you've worked all season for this, this is the part where you shine.'

Outdoor, when I got to NCAAs, I was like, 'this is it, this is the finish line, you won't be more prepared than you are for right now at this moment.'

Indoor, I put way too much pressure on myself and caught up on the hype and not concerned about the execution of the race.

What are some strategies that you use to alleviate your nerves?

It all started when I talked to a sports psychologist because I would have really bad nerves. We just practiced gratitude. God blessed me with a gift and I should be really grateful to be running for a DI college at my dream school. I really have to say those things out loud to put them in perspective as well, I can't just say them in my head. Practicing that a lot really helped me.

[I started seeing a sports psychologist] probably right before indoor SECs. It was my idea. I knew my mental state at track meets wasn't ok. I was a nervous wreck. I wanted to do whatever it took to get better.

Did you have any issues with being really nervous when you were in high school?

Yes I did. In high school, I would cry before the 400m. But it wasn't that I was scared, it was more so I was nervous. So my nerves were pretty bad in high school but I feel like it was a little worse once I got to college because it was such a big stage and I didn't know what to expect.

Were you expecting to be one of the top runners in the NCAA as a freshman?

It was definitely a surprise for me, I knew I would do well but I didn't think I would be a national champion or an SEC champion.

What's changed for you since becoming an NCAA champion?

I have a target on my back now. Versus before, I was just a freshman. I had an underdog mindset. But now I'm on top basically and I have to stay on top. Putting pressure on myself. I have to check that a lot and make sure I'm not being too hard or too down on myself. Continuing to make sure I'm having fun for myself and doing what I'm supposed to do.

Why did you decide on the University of Georgia?

Aside from the coaching staff-which I really like-when I visited, it felt like such a homey place. It reminded me a lot of Indiana. I didn't feel too uncomfortable or out of place. I have family here in Georgia as well, so it was nice to know that I'm within reach if I ever needed my family.

* Irby competing for Pike High School in 2017

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What was the hardest thing about moving on campus?

The hardest thing was not really knowing anybody. The only person I knew was Candace Hill and we're best friends now. She was the only person I knew and I didn't have any friends who were coming in to Georgia. I knew my teammates from my visit and they all congratulated me when I signed but there wasn't much to talk about after that. I'm a social butterfly so I was nervous if I'd be able to fit in with the crowd here, how am I going to transition into my social life.

It's super easy making friends when you're on a sports team because you have built-in friends. You're going to see these people every day, training everyday, you're dying together every day. I anticipated too much. I had in my head this whole thing of how college was going to be, and it wasn't that at all. I thought I would be homesick more but they keep us so busy it's hard to think about being homesick.

How was the transition in the classroom?

Oh man. The first time I took a hard class was definitely in season second semester, I took chemistry and it kicked my butt. It was such a humbling experience. I realized that I am not a science brain so I changed my major just recently to political science, it was exercise sports science before. We have a lot of support here academically, too. It's hard to not be eligible, I would say. I was worried at first because I almost thought I was stupid or something. I did so well in high school, how am I doing so poorly? I was having a breakdown and my coach was like, 'you're not stupid, you just have to find what you're good at,' and I was like, 'but I thought I was good at everything!'

What was your dynamic with Candace and what did you learn from each other?

We were both going through our freshman year not knowing what to expect and having fun together. It was nice to talk to someone who could relate to you about different struggles we would face and someone to laugh with about stuff in the track world, who understands. We've been competing with each other for a few years and made a couple world junior teams together. We knew each other pretty well and we've only gotten closer.

She still trains in the area, she's like a sister to me. We're very close.

What was the highlight of your freshman year?

The highlight of my outdoor season, winning my individual title [at NCAAs in the 400m], was the fact that I ran 49. And I ran well into the 49s, it wasn't like almost 50 point. I am excited to repeat it sometime this year.

Winning [indoor nationals] as a team was almost emotional. When I committed, that was one of the things that Petros really wanted. He said, 'Lynna, with you on our team, we could win nationals,' and of course I wanted to be a part of that and a part of UGA's first national title.

What was your toughest moment as an athlete?

Definitely the indoor 400m at NCAAs, not because I got third but more so because I felt like I didn't execute that race well. It took me awhile to get over it. It was just disappointing because I couldn't understand what the difference was between the SECs 400m that I ran extremely well and NCAAs, it was only a week or two apart. I think I ran a little bit, two-tenths, off my PR as well. I knew I didn't want that to happen again and I trained so hard. Whether or not I got second or third outdoor, I knew my execution would be better.

With Tara Davis and Kate Hall leaving and Keturah Orji graduating, what's the new team dynamic like at Georgia?

This year, I've really had to step up as a leader. I'm one of the people who returns to Georgia for the younger girls. The younger girls are really fired up and ready, Coach Petros gets everyone motivated. I would say it's pretty much the same from when I first committed. I could tell everyone on the team wanted to be winners. Even though Keturah graduated and Tara left and Kate has become pro as well, I still feel the same. We all want to win and uplift each other. One of the reasons why I committed was because I wanted to be great and I was in a room full of greatness.

What are your favorite things about UGA besides the track program?

The football culture. All the games are really fun. They win almost every single game, home or away. Being in the atmosphere is so fun. I love the school spirit. Another thing is, I don't feel peer pressure to party. If I don't want to go party, I don't have to. Versus at other schools, I don't know, when I took my visits to other places, it felt like if you weren't partying you would pressured to do so. But here at Georgia, if you want to spend a weekend in the dorms, you can do that with your friends and everyone's fine with it.

What are your goals for this year?

This year, I would like to win the 200m and 400m indoor and outdoor. That's really my main goal. And to have fun. Continue to build off what I finished with last year.

Has your mindset changed at all after winning last year and knowing that some of your top competitors have graduated or turned pro?

No. I still got a lot of fear in my heart. You gotta respect the field, definitely. There's still a lot of girls coming back and more girls who have come in and I know are training hard. Definitely not sleeping on anyone. Track and field is anyone's race. You gotta continue to keep your eye on the prize.

Are you thinking about trying to make the world team later this year?

Oh, definitely. Making the world team later in the year is definitely a goal for us but as of right now, just taking it week by week. Just focus on what's in front of us, which is winning some NCAA titles.

It is crazy because I didn't realize how fast 2018 went by which means 2019 is going to fly, too, and before I know it, it's going to be time to try out for the Olympics. I thought about [making the Olympics] in high school which is every track runner's dream. Last year when I ran 49, it wasn't a dream anymore. It became a real goal.

What do you think of the mixed gender 4x4?

I ran on one in 2015 [at the IAAF World Youth Championships] and I can honestly tell you it is the scariest thing in the world.

You can put the relay in any kind of order and the way our world youth team ran it, we had a guy and then me and then another guy and then Sammy Watson anchored it. She had such a huge lead already but all the other countries put boys on the last leg. To watch Sammy going around the turn and all these boys running super hard to catch her, it was so scary. We ended up getting the first gold [medal] ever for that race, but it was so scary. My nerves were at an all time high.

What advice you would give to an incoming freshman?

The best advice I could give them is just have fun and trust your coaches. Don't try to second-guess your coaches. You gotta let the coach be the coach and the athlete be the athlete. You can't overstep your boundaries, just have fun. This is a fun experience. It's still serious, don't get me wrong, but this can also be fun. It's not a job yet.