Kellie Wells can't slow down
The flags have been lowered, the crowds are silent, the commercials have finished and the flashbulbs have dimmed.
The 2012 London Olympics are over and the reality of post-Games life is setting in for athletes. However, just because the Olympics are finished, it doesn't mean things have slowed down.
For Kellie Wells, who won bronze in the 100-meter hurdles, the running around didn't stop on the track, as her schedule has been jam-packed in the weeks since the Olympics.
After London, she spent a month in Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and Croatia competing in the Diamond League series of track meets. Then Wells flew home to Virginia, where she did autograph sessions, made an appearance at a NASCAR race and experienced her newfound celebrity among fans from Hampton University, her alma mater.
"When I got home, it was absolutely crazy," Wells said. "There were news stations at the airport and tons of Hampton alumni and students. It took me two hours to get out of the airport because I took the time to sign everyone's autographs. It was so crazy but touching."
Wells also dealt with the dark side of fame as part of a media firestorm surrounding fellow hurdler Lolo Jones. Jones, who finished fourth in the 100 hurdles, got more exposure than other hurdlers through marketing before and during the Olympics. Her sponsors included McDonald's, Red Bull and Oakley.
After the race, Wells was interviewed with silver medalist Dawn Harper, who expressed her distaste for the amount of coverage Jones received.
In the interview, Harper said, "I just felt as if I worked really hard to represent my country in the best way possible, and to come away with the gold medal, and to honestly seem as if, because their favorite [Jones] didn't win, all of sudden it's just like, 'We're going to push your story aside and still gonna push this one.' That hurt. It did. It hurt my feelings."
Wells said she was blindsided by Harper's comments and doesn't share her sentiments. But, as Wells said then, she was pleased with the women who received medals.
"I like that Lolo became a favorite and caused everyone to watch my event. I have no problem with her," Wells said. "I wasn't trying to diminish anyone's accomplishments. I was pleased about the women that got on the podium and that I was one of them. I never even said anything about [Jones]. All I said was the women that worked hard got on the podium. There are no certainties in this sport except that you go into the final and you know there will be eight lanes and three medals."
After the post-Olympics interview, Wells received some negative feedback on social media.
"I'll get the occasional tweet or email about how disappointed and sad they were in me," Wells said. "Sometimes people will stoop low by using the N-word and turning this into a racial issue. That's crazy, because this is real life. If you felt like I said something that offended you, then say that, not take it back to the '60s with racial insults. It hurt my feelings a lot. I'm not a mean person, and I'm not hateful."
During that difficult time, Wells relied on her friends and family. She also tried to focus on the positive energy radiating from fans who were moved by her success.
As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, Wells' journey has touched many. She has started a foundation to support women and children who have been abused as children.
"I knew people watched the Olympics, but not like that. Some people took off of work to watch me run," Wells said. "I got emails, Facebook posts and tweets about how my personal story or love for Christ inspired them to live a more healthy life. The possibility that I saved someone's life just by running is absolutely amazing to me."
As nice as Olympic success is, it doesn't pay the bills. The U.S. Olympic Committee offers stipends and health insurance to only a limited number of athletes. A large percentage of track and field athletes, with or without a medal, struggle to maintain sponsorship dollars and a salary when the Olympics are over.
Approximately 50 percent of track and field athletes who rank in the top 10 in America in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (through sponsorships, grants and prize money), according to the USA Track & Field Foundation.
Wells has struggled but says she budgets her funds. She doesn't currently have any sponsors.
"It's difficult for American track and field athletes to maintain [marketing dollars] post-Olympics because, outside of the Olympics, track is not popular in the USA," Wells said. "I have a marketing team, and they are going after big-name sponsors for me. With me winning a medal and being well-spoken, I think I am pretty marketable."
Time in the limelight can be short for an Olympian, which is why track and field veterans advised Wells not to get complacent. She is always looking toward her next race while remaining humble and thankful for her success.
"When I came home from London, I took time to sign everyone's autographs in the airport," Wells said. "There was a time when nobody wanted my autograph, and there will be a time when no one will. I'm just enjoying what I have now."