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CavConversations: Cha’Mia Rothwell ’16 Pays Forward the Wisdom of Her DA Coaches
by Dylan Howlett
Sometimes, as Atlas Lad ’26 realized, a lesson doesn’t spring from a dry-erase board or a textbook. It comes in the form of stories, and experiences, from those who came before.
This occurred to Lad when he was listening to Catalyze, a podcast that Benny Klein ’20 co-hosts on behalf of the Morehead-Cain merit scholarship program at UNC-Chapel Hill. The series features in-depth conversations with action-oriented alumni. Lad had an epiphany, and a vision, for Durham Academy. “Imagine if we could do this at DA,” Lad said, “where not only students will be able to connect with alumni, but they’ll also be able to learn key life lessons and things that they wouldn’t have otherwise known while transitioning from high school to college and beyond.” He doesn’t have to imagine it anymore: He created it.
Lad’s CavConversations features interviews with DA alumni from a panoply of professions and industries. The full-length episodes — which will be released periodically over the next few months — have produced a distinct motif. “A main theme from all of the alumni was to do everything you can at DA,” Lad said. “Make use of the resources, make use of the people, make use of the teachers, make use of the opportunities. I know it’s probably in everyone’s subconscious, but some people forget, and they kind of just take their classes and are overloaded with all of this work. But beyond the classes, there are also so many other opportunities that people can pursue.”
Few alums understand the need for variety in experiences and opportunities more than Cha’Mia Rothwell ’16, Lad’s inaugural guest on CavConversations. The former DA athletics star scored more than 1,000 points for the girls basketball team and won five individual state titles with the track and field team. The 2022 DA Athletic Hall of Fame inductee would go on to set four school records and one Ivy League record as a sprinter and hurdler at Dartmouth College before spending her graduate year of eligibility at Duke University, which eventually landed her a spot at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials for the Tokyo Olympics. Rothwell returned to DA in the spring of 2023 as an assistant coach with the track and field team, and she serves as an assistant coach in sprints and hurdles for the track team at N.C. Central University.
Rothwell and Lad’s wide-ranging conversation includes the small habits that lead to big outcomes; passing on the wisdom imparted by coaches and teachers at DA; the sheer surprise and wonder of competing in the U.S. Olympic Trials; and the best way for DA students to make the most of their time at the Upper School, where lessons seen and unseen abound.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Lad: During your time at DA, how did you balance the demanding schedule of academics and athletics?

Rothwell: Great question. Part of what I really focused on was actually writing things down. I really made a point to be very strategic in how I went about scheduling my day, breaking apart my time. During my free period, I was doing things to kind of get ahead on what I needed to do for the next day or the next week. That helped me to not be stressed. I still managed to get sleep, eat, do all of the things I needed to do to maintain that kind of balance as a student-athlete. I really don’t even like to call it a “balance” because it’s so hectic. To me, it’s more managing your priorities. What’s more important? What needs to get done within 48 hours? What needs to get done in six days? Once I started thinking strategically like that, which started at DA, that helped me build upon that and get more strategic and focused in the years to come.

Lad: What key lessons from your DA coaches and teachers have stayed with you?

Rothwell: I always felt so at home at Durham Academy, and that was central to my success. All of my teachers and all of my coaches never once told me to be anything other than myself. And that just enables you to be a better leader. It allows you to lead in truth in who you are. Just knowing that I was supported in my own endeavors and backed by such great teachers who not only encouraged me to be a critical thinker, but also had enough insight to look at each student on an individual level and say, ‘Hey, I see something in you. Let’s dig deeper here.’ All of that has been instrumental in all of the success that I’ve accrued over the years.

Lad: You mentioned critical thinking was a major skill you learned at DA. Specifically, how has it impacted your personal and professional career?

Rothwell: That’s a great question. When you think about critical thinking, I think some of that boils down to self-evaluation. When I’m looking at goals and solving problems, a part of that is having to look in the mirror and seeing my gaps and my faults and what I need to do on my end. You can’t really have critical thinking without self-evaluation. I think for me, it’s really taking matters into my own hands. It’s not just following others. It’s kind of trailblazing your own path and being able to think about what matters most to you and your own goals.

Lad: How has being a DA athlete and coach influenced this pursuit of coaching track at NCCU?

Rothwell: It’s been so, so fundamental. Something that I think people forget once you reach an elite level in your sport like I’ve kind of achieved, you really kind of lose sight of where you came from. And it’s inevitable. You kind of get to this place where the things that were so hard for you to learn at one point are just second nature. I think the fundamental experiences that I’ve had through my DA coaches — Coach [Dennis] Cullen and Coach [Costen] Irons in track and field, Krista Gingrich in basketball — all of those coaches really, really helped me focus on the things that mattered. I’ve learned from my coaches how to kind of backtrack in my own brain and say, OK, getting in the shoes of a high schooler, how can I understand what the prerequisite skill is to achieve more compounded steps before moving up to such an elite level? I can’t coach a kid in high school how I coach an elite athlete who has achieved a lot. At a certain point, we have to guide them in a different way. I think all of that has kind of contributed to where I am now as a coach. I have that multifaceted approach in how I go about coaching and how I interact with the athletes.

Lad: How did the skill and discipline from your athletic career inform your coaching style?

Rothwell: I think just being able to show up day by day. Some of these things are so redundant, and I think that’s the hard part that people don’t want to really grasp and understand about success. It’s doing the boring stuff over and over and over. It’s not these quick fixes. It’s not a quick hack. It’s really getting tried and true with the effort, with the things that work, and putting your best effort forward every single day. It’s not trying to make a miracle happen overnight. I think that’s something that really deters people from success because they don’t see things happen right away, and immediately they’re like, ‘Well, this isn’t worth my time.’ There’s going to be this ebb and flow. You’re going to have very high moments. You’re going to have very low moments. And then some days, you’re just floating along in the middle. Motivation goes with that as well. You’re not going to feel like doing what you have to do every day, but you still have to get up. You still have to show up. You still have to be a person of character. You still have to be a person of integrity. Those things still have to occur day by day.

Lad: I understand that you participated in the U.S. Olympic Trials for the Tokyo Olympics, which is amazing. What was your journey and preparation for this?

Photo Courtesy of Duke Athletic Communications

Rothwell: I like to make a running joke that I ended up at the Trials by complete accident, which is not true. Luck is no such thing in the sport of track and field when it’s just you and a track and the time. Coming into Duke right after graduating from Dartmouth, I really came in with the mindset that, ‘Look, I’m a grad student. This is my last year potentially running track.’ And so I had an all-in mindset. Coincidentally, COVID-19 was around at the same time, so it was really just school and track. There was no going outside. There was no hanging out. It was a detriment to our social life, but I had the greater unit of our team. All of these different factors enabled me to really, really focus a good chunk of that year on track. I was so caught up in my goals, and not just making the Olympic Trials: That actually wasn’t one of my goals until I mentally saw that it was within reach. I was so caught up in just enjoying my teammates, showing up every day, having fun.

By the end of the year, I was running faster than I had ever run all throughout undergrad, faster than I thought I could have at the time, and I was knocking on the door of the Olympic Trials standard. I sat down with my coach in April 2021. He said, ‘Look, you’re progressing in your training. We’re going to book a [hotel] room for Olympic Trials.’ And I looked at him with a big deer-in-the-headlights look. Like, no way. There’s no way you’re going to book me a room. There’s no way you think I’m going to run that fast. I went to the conference championships and didn’t run as well as I wanted to. Then I went to the NCAA regionals in Jacksonville, and that’s when I ran under the 13-second mark [in the 100-meter hurdles] for the first time. It blew my mind. I did it again in the finals. I was so caught up in just the day-to-day of that year — having fun with my teammates, being focused on the team title — that Olympic Trials was secondary to all of this. But this is the thing about luck: There’s no such thing. Luck is when opportunity meets preparation. I knew the opportunity was there when it was presented to me, and I had been doing the prep work for months and months. It was a whirlwind of all the perfect things that put me in a really good position.

Even though Trials didn’t turn out the way that I wanted to, I went in knowing that I had put in the work. But I was also a little shocked. I’m here among people whom I’ve looked at in awe on the TV for years leading up to this moment. I struggled with that a little bit, just being in that space and saying, ‘OK, I did the work. I belong here. But oh, my gosh. [Seven-time Olympic gold medalist] Allyson Felix is right there and she’s been to the past four Olympics, and here’s little me.’ It’s very interesting to see that dynamic, but it made me grateful for the experience. It taught me a lot of things about myself and what I’m capable of in spite of not having set a particular goal. It just funneled into fruition.

Lad: On top of your successes, what challenges have you faced? And how have you overcome them?

Rothwell: Back in November 2018, I broke my hand hurdling, and it kind of set me back a little bit further than I anticipated. But it taught me so much on the side of patience. I had never been so antsy in my life because I had pins in my hand. It was a very serious surgery. Not only could I not run for a few months, but I also couldn’t lift. That took away from my strength. I felt like when I came back, I wasn’t going to be where I was before, which is true with any injury. But mentally facing that was a little daunting. It was a humbling process. I’m sitting in rehab and being told to make a fist. My pinkie is coming down and it doesn’t look like it’s moving, but I’m sitting there grimacing. It’s very interesting how injuries can put you in a position to really doubt all of the work that you’ve put in, and put you in a position where you’re in a mentally dark place. It’s the importance of mental health in athletics. It’s not just about the high moments. It’s not just about when you’re having success. It’s about knowing how to pick yourself up when you’re having a dark time or when things are not going as smoothly. Despite every preventative measure and anything that you do, these things are always going to come up. Having the tools to kind of navigate these challenging times, having the tools to navigate mentally, giving yourself the support system and staying in touch with your community and letting them know, ‘Hey, this is how I’m feeling today,’ just being completely vulnerable — all of those things are going to contribute to you being a stronger athlete in the long run. It doesn’t come without its ups and downs. Fully attacking the “downs” as much as you’re attacking those “up” periods is so key in navigating that success long-term.

Lad: I completely agree. Patience and good mental health are not just key facets for athletics, but also for life. What advice would you give to current DA students — especially those aspiring to a career in athletics?

Rothwell: Find yourself outside of your sport. We spend so much time thinking, ‘I want to throw this far. I want to score over 1,000 points in my career. I want to play professionally.’ You’re going to be yourself for longer than you’re running over hurdles, for longer than you’re shooting hoops, for longer than you’re teeing off on the golf course. You’re going to be yourself for longer than these things you’re chasing after. And sometimes these things that you’re chasing after, they may not come. It’s so important to not get caught up in success in the areas you wanted, but to also flesh out the areas in your life that surround this — that will not only help you elevate in that specific area of your sport, but also give you tools to succeed after your career is done. It’s so important to figure these things out early — for example, while you’re in high school. That’s a time where you can say, ‘All right, I’m still young. I’m still focused on my career as an athlete and yes, I want to progress, but when those things are done, what are some things now that I’m kind of interested in that I could see myself pursuing?’ That transition is very tough, and it’s so important to have a sound foundation holistically. It’s something that honestly, I look at as a coach now with recruiting. Sometimes I’ll meet with an athlete who’s kind of all-in and doesn’t have any balance, and I’ll ask them, ‘Do you do anything outside of your sport?’ And then there’s silence. Major red flag. Major, major red flag. Not just defining yourself within the scope of your sport, having that long-term vision and knowing at some point that you’re going to evolve into something else, and yet you’re still yourself — that’s going to keep you super grounded.

Lad: Putting yourself back in your shoes when you were a Durham Academy student, is there a particular piece of wisdom you wish you knew during your Upper School years?

Rothwell: One of the special things about the Durham Academy community is that so many of the students are gifted not just in sports, not just in their classroom, but also across all of these things at one time. I saw this not just when I was in school, but also in the past couple of years when I was coaching. You have so many young students who are doing five different things and trying to do them all at 100%. You can’t spread yourself so thin. I think sometimes in high school, you can kind of get on this hamster wheel where you feel like you’re constantly having to run, constantly checking off these things and not truly getting the enrichment that comes from not being spread thin and being more focused on specific areas that you really want to do a deep dive into. That’s the time to be doing those things. There’s something to be said about focusing on areas that you feel are important to you and to your development as a person — not just because it’s going to look good and you’ll have the ability to say that you did this. I don’t want students to look back on high school and say it was a whirlwind and they really didn’t get a lot out of it because they were all over the place. I want them to find their niche and find something special that they were able to carry on outside of high school. That’s what’s going to matter when you look back at your experience 20, 30, 40 years from now.

Lad: Right — so being passionate about everything that you do and making an impact on not just yourself, but also others around you?

Rothwell: Exactly. Exactly. Letting your passions live through you and pursuing that wholeheartedly — it comes back tenfold every time.