Chari Hawkins, the vivacious blonde track and field athlete, never would let go of her Olympic aspirations. Not even when she failed to score a single point for Utah State in the NCAA outdoor championships, where her best finish was ninth. Not even when she finished 15th in her first Olympic trials, in 2016; not when she finished sixth in her second Olympic trials, in 2021 — at the age of 30.

“In 2021, I actually thought that I was going to be done,” she said. “I thought that was going to be my last year. And so I remember going home and being like, ‘I’m never going to be able to say that I was an Olympian.’”

She wasn’t done, as it turned out, and three years later she flipped the script. She placed second in the heptathlon at last month’s Olympic trials. Through the sheer force of her will and her outsized personality, she qualified for the Olympic Games, finally, at the age of 33. The small-town girl from Idaho can say she’s an Olympian.

“I haven’t stopped crying since it happened … Being an Olympian, oh, man! It’s so cool!” she said (tearing up again),” she told reporters. “And I’m such an ugly crier. This is so embarrassing, but it’s real … I’m beyond grateful. I’m just trying to take in this moment as much as I possibly can because I know that amazing moments are fleeting.”

Hawkins is a talker so let’s let her talk some more (you’ll have to imagine her gesturing widely with her arms and hands to make her point).

Former Utah State star Chari Hawkins qualifies for Olympics

“I was a decent athlete growing up, but I was never that special, holy cow, look at her, she’s going to break the world record at 16,” she continued. “I mean, I’m 33, guys! This has been 20 years in the making. I have been doing track and field for 20 years. It only took me 20 years to make the Olympics, so that’s what they mean when they say it takes 10 years to become an overnight success, and sometimes it takes 20 years.”

Her story reads like an after-school special. She grew up in Rexburg, Idaho. It’s a community that gives the kids two weeks off from school to help harvest the local fields. As she once put it, “Being in a small town almost made me feel like I didn’t deserve to be on a bigger stage.”

Many kids dream of the Olympics, but only a handful are sustained by it for two decades. “It’s such an unrealistic goal for anybody in this world,” she once confessed to Utah State Magazine.

She was a three-sport athlete at Madison High, which seems fitting for a future heptathlete, and eventually received college scholarship offers for basketball, volleyball and track. She says she took up track and field because her friends told her that’s where she would meet boys.

She avoided the more physical exertions by choosing to compete in the high jump, but a year later she was convinced to add another event to her repertoire. For the next three years, she won state championships in the 100-meter hurdles and high jump, and as a senior she won the long jump title, as well. Her best marks: 14.46 in the hurdles, 5 feet 8 inches in the high jump, 19 feet 2 inches in the long jump.

At Utah State, she set still-standing school records in the high jump (5-foot-11¼) and heptathlon (5,750 points), but she never earned first-team All-America honors outdoors. Her best performance was a third-place finish at the less-competitive NCAA indoor championships in 2016. Her finishes in the outdoor championships: 11th, 9th, 14th.

There was little to suggest she was a future Olympian.

Chari Hawkins competes in the heptathlon high jump during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials Sunday, June 23, 2024, in Eugene, Ore.
Chari Hawkins competes in the heptathlon high jump during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials Sunday, June 23, 2024, in Eugene, Ore. | Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

Hawkins nonetheless continued to pursue the sport after she graduated from USU in 2015, and the following year she placed third in the U.S. indoor nationals. This was followed by the dismal 15th-place showing at the Olympic trials. More disappointment followed when she placed seventh in the USA outdoor championships. In 2019, she made a career breakthrough, placing third at the U.S. championships to qualify for the U.S. World championships team, where she placed 12th. But finishing sixth in the 2021 trials, she considered quitting the sport.

“I think what happened was I said there was this itch that said you can’t end like this,” she says. “I had worked so hard … So let me do just one more year.”

She changed coaches to start the 2022 season and began training under Craig Poole. The former BYU women’s head coach, Poole was head coach of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, and a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic coaching staff specializing in jumps and the heptathlon. That spring, Hawkins won U.S. indoor nationals, but a fourth-place finish in the U.S. outdoor championships cost her a spot on the world championships team.

“But … I had such a great year, it was like, OK, let’s just do one more year,” she says.

Former Utah State star claims spot on world track championships team

Her persistence was rewarded. She placed third in the 2023 U.S. outdoor championships and eighth at the world championships, followed by her life-altering performance at last month’s Olympic trials. She was only six points behind eventual winner Anna Hall heading into the final event — the 800-meter run, her weakest event and Hall’s strongest.

“It is so hard when you PR in almost every event to say I’ll just be done,” she says.

One more year has turned into three more years. She has set personal records in six of the seven pentathlon events since 2022 — four of them at this year’s trials — as well as personal records for her overall pentathlon score in 2022, 2023 and 2024. Her best marks: 100-meter hurdles, 12.95; 200-meter dash, 24.05; 800 meters, 2:14.76; shot put, 48-1 ¾; javelin, 161-8; high jump, 6-0 3/4; long jump, 20-6 ¼; total score, 6,456 points.

“I used to get asked all the time, how are you still getting better?” she says. “I feel better now than when I was 21.”

Says Poole, “She’s worked hard, really, really hard. And she’s very much a student of her craft. She wants to know what you do, how you do it and why. You name it, she’s asking questions.”

Poole says Hawkins, who married fellow Utah State athlete C.J. O’Neal, spends eight hours a day developing skills, running, lifting weights, rehabbing, consulting nutritionists and physical therapists, meeting with sponsors, and maintaining her strong social-media presence.

Chari Hawkins competes in the women's heptathlon javelin throw during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials Monday, June 24, 2024, in Eugene, Ore.
Chari Hawkins competes in the women's heptathlon javelin throw during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials, Monday, June 24, 2024, in Eugene, Ore. | Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

Personable, quotable and accessible, she has almost 1 million followers on Instagram. She plays to her audience unabashedly. In one of her posts, she strikes various poses and does wind sprints on what appears to be the Salt Flats, while offering her own homespun advice — “Take care of you — make sure you’re finding time to be happy.”

View Comments

“She’s very good at promotions,” says Poole.

“In 2016 I made a decree to myself … that’s how my social media started,” she says. “It’s just an online journal … one day this is going to be my best event.”

All of the above makes her a magnet for sponsorships. She signed a deal with Brooks this year and has deals with several other companies.

As for the future, she says, “I always ask my family, ‘Are we still having fun, are we still getting better and does it make sense for life?’ I haven’t made any decisions yet.”

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.