Published on 09.15.2021
Encouraging Black Athletes to Dream Bigger
Joseph Gray is an accomplished trail, mountain and distance runner. A trailblazer in his sport, he was the first Black athlete to make the U.S. Mountain Running Team. Today, he’s a 20-Time USA National Champion who — through his program Project Inspire Diversity — works tirelessly to encourage young Black athletes to dream bigger than they ever have before.
What about mountain running inspired you to make it a lifelong passion?
My love for running probably started in Germany. I was a military brat. I spent time in Kentucky, Germany, and Washington state. A lot of times we played in the woods, running on trails. Mountain running keeps me inspired just for the simple fact that, you know, at the foundation, it's about exploration. I love finding a new trail or looking out at a new peak and trying to figure out how to get out there. I love that personal journey, the idea that you're challenging yourself to be the best that you can be in an endurance event.
What was it like when you first started running competitively?
When I was first getting into the sport, not a lot of people in my community gave me support. The Black kids that I grew up with, we all played basketball. This new sport was very different. It was a culture shock if you will. I was the only Black guy at practice.
There are times where you don't feel the same level of support being a Black athlete in a sport that's predominately white, especially in our country. I didn't have that support, so I had to find other ways to keep myself motivated.
What did you do to keep yourself motivated?
The biggest way I tried to stay motivated was to focus on myself, right? I tried not to be too concerned with media attention because I wasn't getting as much, being the only Black athlete.
I couldn't control if people didn't like me or didn't want to support me in that space. I love doing this. I have goals that I want to reach in order to inspire others like myself. I really focused on championships, making the U.S. team, and being the best athlete I could be.
“My being at the top of the sport changes the imagery of the podium.”
How do you feel your success as a Black athlete has influenced the sport?
When I was in elementary school, we looked at the NBA, and it didn't matter if you were Black or white, you had somebody to aspire to because the NBA was very diverse. When you look at outdoor sports, that marketing's not there. It looked like a sport for the upper class, for people who had a lot of money. The Black athletes were not on national teams, not running. I was the first Black athlete that broke the cycle. My being at the top of the sport changes the imagery of the podium.
Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
I was the first Black athlete to make the U.S. Team in mountain running, and I was the first Black athlete to win the National Mountain Running Championships in the U.S. — both accomplishments that I've been able to replicate multiple times since 2008.
I think my proudest accomplishment is consistency. It's hard to be successful, especially in distance running, for an extended period of time. I think it speaks volumes to motivation and work ethic — two things that I really value and that I preach to young athletes and the athletes that I coach.
You’re a professional runner, a coach, a mentor, and a dad — any tips for doing it all?
I'm on the go a lot of times. One moment I'm just chilling, and then the next moment I'm out doing something active or hanging out with the kids and they want to go run and play. So for me, that's a real big deal — I need to wear clothing that will allow you to be versatile, I can’t wear clothing that's going to overheat you.
I am, you know, a versatile person, a very diverse person in terms of my style being kind of all over the map. I need to look good and be able to move. My style has to be versatile because my life is.
“My style has to be versatile because my life is.”
What’s the one thing you want to pass on to young athletes following in your footsteps?
In terms of athletics, it’s more important than just you. How you behave might influence somebody that you don't know, you have to be thinking about that. The bigger picture is that it's not just about you.
Hopefully, young Black athletes who look at mountain racing might see me and say, 'I want to give it a try and see if I can do what he did.'
You started a program called Project Inspire Diversity to help support these athletes on their journey. Tell us about that experience.
I remember once, a coach gave me a pair of track shoes because I was running in big old heavy boat shoes. I remember just being super pumped up to go to practice that whole week. He probably didn't realize the fire that lit in me, but it was very important because I felt supported. That's what I want to do with Project Inspire Diversity.
Nobody does anything great without their community. I reach out to the community and I get in touch with these kids and, and provide them with products and help them stay motivated. I try to inspire them. Project Inspire Diversity is all about inspiring the next generation of young Black athletes, keeping them motivated and chasing their dreams.
What’s next for Project Inspire Diversity? For you?
I'm going to represent Team USA at the World Trail Running Championships in December. I’m excited about that. There are kids I work with through Project Inspire Diversity, they’ve sent me DMs saying I inspire them. In reality, they’re helping me more than I’m helping them — during hard times and races and training. These are young athletes who are looking for someone to aspire to, so it’s very important that I continue to do what I do, and be successful at it.
When I think about life, it's all about progression. I want to be a better father, I want to be a better husband, a better brother. I want to be a better human being. I want to be better for everybody in my life, and for people who don't know me as well.
“Hopefully, young Black athletes who look at mountain racing might see me and say, ‘I want to give it a try and see if I can do what he did.’”
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