EUGENE, OR - JULY 08: Brianna Rollins and Kristi Castlin celebrate after the Women’s 100 Meter Hurdles Final during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on July 8, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
Photo: Cliff Hawkins
Photo: Cliff Hawkins

The final hurdle: With tragic past behind, Castlin eyes Olympic medal

It took her a lifetime to make it to the race. But it took Kristi Castlin just 12.5 seconds to become an Olympian.

When she was 12, her father was murdered as he worked at a Cobb County hotel. It would be nearly 15 years later before Rodney Castlin’s killer was sent to prison. By then, a young girl with remarkable athletic ability had grown into one of the fastest women in the world, recognizing her strength and persevering in her hardest race of all.

“The road to Rio has been a very, very long road,” Kristi’s mother, Kim Castlin, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “For our family, we needed this. We needed it.”

The starting line

Kristi Castlin, now 28, can still remember her aunt waking her up and the sound of her mother crying. As the 12-year-old slept, her father was shot to death during a botched robbery inside a Barrett Parkway hotel.

Her parents were divorced, but Kristi and her brother remained close with their father, his new wife and their young son. Rodney Castlin, 36, had been working a night job so his days could be spent pursuing a business degree, a way for him to provide for his growing family. Castlin’s wife was eight months pregnant when he was killed Dec. 7, 2000.

“Sometimes as a kid, you really can’t process it,” Kristi said. “As you get older, you need your dad.”

The senseless murder of a husband and father wouldn’t be solved for 14 years. But for Kristi, it was the impetus she needed to move beyond tragedy and literally leap to her dreams. On July 8, she finished in second place in the 100 meter hurdles at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., earning her a spot on the United States team headed to the Rio games.

“I’m gonna finish the mission and get the job done,” Kristi said as she walked to the Los Angeles track where she trains.

With two athletic parents, running came easy to Kristi. Her mom ran track at Columbia High School in Decatur alongside future Olympic gold medal winner Gwen Torrence. “But nothing like Kristi,” Kim Castlin said.

Still, running wasn’t something Kristi took seriously — until it was time to beat her classmates.

“I was like, ‘Field Day, let’s do it,’” she said.

Kristi was more interested in cheerleading and gymnastics, and as a single mother with two active children, Kim Castlin wasn’t sure the family could add the track team to the schedule. Plus, she wanted Kristi and her brother, Rodney Jr., focused on academics.

The day Kim Castlin saw her daughter compete in the hurdles everything changed.

“It was natural to her,” Castlin said. “How could she do that?”

As a ninth grader, Kristi joined the track team at Chapel Hill High School in Douglasville, where she competed in hurdles, the triple jump and relays. The same year, she qualified for the state meet, where she placed 6th in the 100 meter hurdles and 7th in the 400 meter hurdles. It was then Kristi made a promise to herself and her coach.

“No longer am I going to come in 6th or 7th,” she remembers saying. “Next time, I’m gonna win.”

She kept her promise. For the next three years, Kristi was the state champion in the 100 meter hurdles. As a senior, she also won the 300 meter hurdle race. She competed in relays too, but ultimately decided she liked the extra challenge of hurdles.

“Not a lot of people can do it; it’s not an event that’s flooded with people,” she said. “I chose to do the hurdles because I wanted to be different.”

With a time of 13.7 seconds, Kristi set a state record her senior year in the 100-meter hurdles. And she was just getting started.

The Olympic dream

Kristi had multiple offers from colleges but chose Virginia Tech to continue her track career. She wasted no time making a name for herself, setting a national junior record as a freshman in 2007. Her record of 12.91 seconds would last for seven years until it was broken by Marietta’s Kendell Williams, a University of Georgia runner who will also compete in Rio.

Before her first year of college was completed, Kristi’s world would be shaken once again by gun violence. On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before committing suicide. More than nine years later, Kristi would dedicate her second-place finish at the Olympic Trials to gun violence survivors like herself.

The mass shooting was a reminder of the pain her family endured after Rodney Castlin was killed.

It wasn’t until October 2014 that police made a break in the case, and the man accused of the killing was arrested. In April, many of Kristi’s family members watched as James Lorenzo Randolph was sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.

“We want to make sure justice is served at this time and that no other family — no other family — is able to have this type of experience that we have experienced,” Kelley Castlin, Rodney’s widow, told the court.

Randolph’s sentence was just, though there was nothing to celebrate, Kristi said.

“It’s not just one life, but two lives that had been taken,” she said.

‘I’m gonna finish the mission’

After earning a political science degree, Kristi ran professionally with the financial backing of corporate sponsors, but she had another goal she still needed to reach: the Olympics. She moved to Los Angeles to train, and in July, she competed in her third Olympic trials.

“I had been preparing for this for so long. I was really confident,” Kristi said. “I knew going into it, I was going to make it.”

Clocking her personal best time of 12.5 seconds, Kristi finished second behind her friend and training partner, Brianna Rollins, and ahead of Nia Ali. All three women made the Olympic team.

“We’re like the hurdle ‘Dream Team,’” Kristi said. “We’re going in for the sweep: first, second and third.”

Some of her family members will be in Rio on Aug. 17 when she competes, and Kristi is hopeful her brother, Rodney, a recent college graduate, will be able to raise the money needed for him to make the trip. And, Kristi knows her father will also be with her for the race she’s been training for since he died.

“I’m gonna finish the mission and get the job done.”

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