Olympian Lea Wallace Runs for her Life

Joanna Douglas
Senior Editor

Lea Wallace’s Olympic training started on the playground. “If I played tag, I knew I could freeze everyone in three minutes,” says the 25-year-old Nike-sponsored runner. “When I was in high school my female P.E. teacher had us run a mile every Friday and it became a game to try to beat me. She said she’d reward my classmates with prizes, but it never happened.”

In spite of her speed, Wallace ran recreationally, studying nutrition at Sacramento State with plans to attend grad school, until her senior year. “I was at a big meet with the best long-distance runners in the country,” says Wallace. “I was one of two college athletes on that line with these world champions I’d idolized standing next to me and I shaved 15 seconds off of my best time. I didn’t want to let it go.” After that, agents were knocking on her door.

Where her foster family had once struggled to buy Wallace running shoes, she was now establishing a stellar reputation in the running world. “I’d wear them into the ground, and you feel really bad going to your parents saying, ‘I know it happened again,’” says Wallace. “When I recently signed a deal with Nike it was so crazy it blew my mind. I came home and there were eight boxes waiting for me. That’s more than I’ve owned in my life!”

Now Wallace is based in San Diego training for the Olympics with the 1984 800 m champion Joaquim Cruz, but life hasn’t necessarily gotten easier. She lost her father at the Olympic trials in 2012, and more recently her mother to cancer. “No matter what, life keeps happening. You get through these challenging times and they make you stronger for the future,” she says. “I’m most proud of how tough I am and that I never give up whether it’s in life, training, or racing.”

Wallace aims for a two to three-mile run with core exercises every the morning, followed by a three to four hour afternoon workout and running session. “I’m always thinking about ways to fine tune my body and keep myself healthy.” When you’re exercising that much—and training for the biggest race of your life—your diet’s hugely important. “One of my nutrition teachers in school said the shorter the shelf life the shorter your life.” Wallace likes muesli, fruit, and yogurt for breakfast, a salad and sandwich for lunch, salmon, veggies, and quinoa for dinner, and snacks on turkey, carrots, or fruit throughout the day. “I’m constantly eating because I’m burning so many calories,” she says. “And I have to have some dark chocolate every night or I’ll go crazy.” 

If you spend all your time on the track, you have to get your fashion kicks through your workout gear. Wallace favors color, like the bright orange Nike Rival Shorts ($50), and makes sure to wear sunscreen everyday. She loves Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer Dry Touch Sunscreen SPF 55 ($8.99) and eos Smooth Lip Balm in Summer Fruit ($3.29). For big races in stadiums full of spectators she’ll wear a little makeup, like L’Oreal’s Voluminous Power Volume 24 Hour Mascara ($7.99), Physicians Formula’s Bronzing Face Powder ($12.99), and tinted moisturizer. Her go-to products after a workout are The Body Shop’s Coconut Body Butter ($12), Dove Go Fresh Cucumber Deodorant ($4.99), and It’s a 10 Miracle Leave-in Product ($13.69) to refresh her hair. “I was a fuzzy headed little kid and spent most of my life trying to find ways to contain my mane,” she says. “Kids would say ‘chi-chi-chi-Lea!’ I learned to embrace it. This is what makes me unique and different and I think it’s beautiful.”

As Wallace gears up for her next big race she keeps the words of her college coach in mind. “He was telling me about everything he had to offer me—the campus, the great facilities—and he said, ‘But you know what? This is up to you. If you want to be a champion this is a decision that you need to make.’ And that really transcends anything in my life, whether academics or running,” Wallace says. “I’m in charge of my own fate and I’m not going to leave it up to circumstance.”

Photo by Kirby Lee, Image of Sport
Photo by Photo courtesy of Lea Wallace
Photo by Phil Bond

This article originally appeared on Yahoo Beauty.