Leaping towards liberty: A conversation with Caira Watson-Haynes
Senior Caira Watson-Haynes is one of the fastest hurdlers in Division III. When the season was suddenly halted last semester, she was in position to compete for a national title. In addition to being one of the best individual performers on a top-tier track team, Watson-Haynes is also co-president of the Washington University Black Letterwinning Athletes Coalition, WU BLAC, an organization founded this summer to create a community of Black athletes and progress Black issues. In this edition of Athlete of the Week, I spoke with Watson-Haynes about how she stayed ready during the long off-season and her goals for WU BLAC.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student Life: Has the track team been practicing at all?
Caira Watson-Haynes: We’ve been practicing together for about three or four weeks, in groups of 20 people max. Each event group is split up. Depending on the event group, girls and guys are split to maintain numbers. We practice together as a team like four or five days a week.
SL: When we spoke in March, you mentioned that right after the NCAA Championships were canceled, you were starting to think about training already. Did you do any training during the offseason?
CWH: I did. We found out everything got canceled that Friday, that Saturday I drove home and that Sunday I was back in the gym training. I really took no time off. I kept basically training through the summer. Of course, I tried to mix it up a little bit by taking some time away from this track and doing those trainings in a park to switch things up. One thing that I focused on through the summer was not even focusing on training for track, but just training for my health. Like the only time I got out of that house was to train. So I use joy in training and just going on runs and using that as my free space to escape from everything going on in the world, to escape from my internship for the summer. I got back in the gym, trained until the gym got shut down. Ran outside, and then I started working formally with one of my high school coaches, I guess you can say, in August to really get ready for actual training when I came back to school.
SL: Gotcha. So before COVID had hit, I imagine that track and field was something that was just part of your routine. Do you think that having a little bit of that routine disrupted made you appreciate it more?
CWH: For me, it wasn’t disrupted since I took no more than two weeks off of running since the season got shut down. But it definitely made me appreciate it more and it helped me realize the role that I want track to play when I no longer formally have track. It made me enjoy the process of running instead of just focusing on training for the next meet.
SL: For sports like football, competing socially distanced seems almost impossible, but for sports like track and field where the important thing is time or distance, It does seem a bit more possible. Do you anticipate there being a spring season?
CWH: I can’t judge. I definitely think there will be an outdoor season. Because it is outdoors, it’s a little bit easier to maintain social distancing. I think indoor will be more of a challenge though. Like Brandeis [University] and Johns Hopkins [University] have already canceled the indoor track season. Emory [University] and [the University of] Chicago have yet to even start practicing. Based on what other schools in our conference are doing, I do think indoor is a little bit less likely. But I don’t think it will be ruled out that we at least have some weeks just to compete.
SL: To switch gears a little bit: During the summer, I noticed that you were critical of the athletic department and how it handles Black athletes. Would you be able to talk to me about any of the issues that you encountered as a Black athlete?
CWH: Yeah. Speaking from personal experience, it’s just like the different conversations that I would have with coaches, them not really understanding my identity, my experience. And going to my coaches saying I feel isolated on the team. And them insisting that we have this family vibe. As a Black female, the family experience I have will be different from the majority-white aspect that my teammates are feeling. An eye-opening experience for me was when I would try to go to the trainers and they had a no-bandana policy and a no-hat policy. Well, I have natural hair. It’s not as simple as me just taking off my hat or my bandana. Another big thing for me is that I would try to talk to my coaches and they would just not realize because our two main coaches are white men from rural areas. But we actually have a document where alumni have all their different experiences. Because I only want to speak on my experiences. I know some players have heard people say the n-word at parties or just having all white coaches. We have no Black coaches. We have a coach who is a thrower, but the majority of the team doesn’t get to interact with her. But it’s a sport like track and field. How do you not have Black coaches? Or how do we have like three Black coaches in the whole department? It just makes it really hard to feel accepted in the whole department when on the administrative level, the odds are so low.
SL: Were the frustrations the reason for the founding of WU-BLAC?
CWH: Yeah. It definitely came from us feeling very isolated. It also felt like we didn’t have an established community amongst ourselves. Not only was the athletic department not establishing a community for us, we felt like the athletes didn’t take enough of an initiative to establish a community across sports.
SL: Could you tell me about what WU-BLAC does?
CWH: We plan events for Black student athletes at Wash. U. We want to build a community for the Black student athletes. We have monthly bonding meetings just so the athletes can play games and relax and get to know each other better. We also have a speaker series. In two weeks—November 4—we have a Wash. U. alum who’s a doctor who’s coming back just to talk about being Black in the workplace and his experience as a doctor and how his experience as a student-athlete at Wash. U. helps him in the field. We’re also working with the athletic department. We met with the athletic department every week over the summer to let them know some of our grievances, some of the changes that we want to see, how we want to see increased diversity on the staff level as well as across athletes. Trying to get diversity and inclusion training for all staff and athletes. Getting athletes on hiring boards: We have two athlete representatives—our co-president [senior] Eka Jose and our VP [junior] Kameron Mack—they both sat on the committee for the new head athlete trainer position. We recognize that we not only need Black administrators, but we need Black student-athletes to help make sure that we have diverse representation on things such as hiring boards, so we can get diverse applicants in the door at Wash. U. We haven’t really been able to delve into this aspect much, but we really want to connect with the St. Louis community. We recognize that there’s a gap between Wash. U. athletics and the Black St. Louis community.
SL: This summer, a lot of prominent athletes were vocal about Black issues, especially police brutality and voting. What power do you think Wash. U. athletes have in progressing a conversation about issues in their community?
CWH: The athletic department has definitely been vocal about voting. Their goal is to get 100% voting participation across all athletes. Our coaches have implemented a speaker series directed at increasing racial conversations. We have a Wash. U. alum who ran for office in Minnesota coming to talk to us about policing. Our coaches are bringing in speakers to talk about controversial issues. It’ll help us all become more informed voters. When it comes to voting, student athletes on college campuses, I feel, play a very important role. I don’t necessarily know at Wash. U., but student athletes tend to be leaders on campus. They tend to be at the forefront of most campuses, especially publicly.
SL: This is your second to last semester at Wash. U.
SL: What do you hope WU-BLAC becomes after you graduate?
CWH: I hope it becomes this organization that is here to last. I hope it becomes an organization that supports Black student-athletes. I hope it is active in the recruitment process of Black student-athletes as well as more Black coaches and administrators. I also think that the biggest thing is being active and supporting the Black student-athletes so that we get more. I really hope we continue to do service with the community and I know that if we focused on increasing Black numbers and being active in our community, that will lead to change in the administrative level at Wash. U. as well.
Saturday, Oct. 24: This interview has been updated with a clarification.