By Ashlyn Amanda Rollins
Special to S.F. Examiner
Monisha Lewis seemed on pace to be the first in her family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Her mother, Harriet Weaver, taught her and her two brothers to never quit anything. After starting track at the age of eight, Lewis didn’t stop running until she developed an ulcer in eighth grade.
“I was miserable watching people run, and I couldn’t be a part of it,” Lewis said.
Yet, after signing with Boise State to run track, she found that the NCAA had not recognized one of her classes from high school. She couldn’t participate. Her stress level rose as her grades fell, and in the fall of her freshman year in 2010, she was dismissed due to her academic standing.
On Tuesday, nine years later, after a marriage, two kids, a junior college stint and an All-American track career at San Francisco State, Lewis graduated with a degree in Africana Studies and hopes of running in the Olympics. Although she chose not to walk in the ceremony, she decided to celebrate over dinner with her family.
“It’s really over, so it’s scary. I can’t believe it,” Lewis said. “I don’t know what to think … But at the same time, I’m so happy with everything that I’ve accomplished in the two years that I’ve been here and I’m happy with what is going to come after this.”
Before graduating on May 28 with a degree in Africana Studies, Lewis, 27, was running in Texas at the Division II National Championships, where she earned All-American honors after finishing second in the 100m hurdles and finishing first as a part of the 4x400m and the 4x100m relay teams.
Now, she has her sights set on running in the USA Championships in July and qualifying for the 2020 Olympics. She’s also starting her own athletic apparel line to run in called HEEL — Heart, Endurance, Excellence and Leadership — the name of a journal she published for athletes.
“When I think of her I just think of the word strength and just thinking about how much she’s persevered through,” said Asaundra Dalton, the Gators’ sprint coach.
When Lewis initially left Boise to head home to Ontario, in Southern California, it was with the intent to enroll in community college to get her grades up and go back to the Broncos. Those plans changed when she met her future husband, Darrin Lewis, and had son Darrian in 2012. The next year, she had her daughter Journee.
As she inched closer to getting her Associate’s degree, she started reaching out to Division II schools. Two schools gave her an opportunity: San Francisco State and California State University, Los Angeles.
Faced with the choice, she wrestled with the idea of moving her family nearly 400 miles away. Ultimately, San Francisco provided family housing, which Lewis said made it more convenient to raise a family. But there were still challenges.
“You’re trying to deal with this idea of selfishness and if you’re being selfish, or if you’re doing something that’s beneficial for your family in the long term,” she said. “I really struggled — and I still struggle from day to day — just trying to decipher if what I’m doing is right. My husband reminds me often that this was a family decision.”
It was also difficult for her to find inspiration from women who were trying to come back to finish school, while competing at the collegiate level and aspiring to compete at a professional level, all after having children. She couldn’t find anyone who had done what she wanted to accomplish.
“This idea of being gone for days at a time [for away meets] was very hard,” Lewis said. “The first time I had been gone from my kids for that long was last year at nationals and I cried because I was just like, ‘Man I’m really gone.’ … You’re missing moments.”
During their first year in San Francisco, her husband Darrin was also taking community college classes. The two balanced both their class schedules, track practices, work and making sure everyone was fed. This year, Darrin, who works in construction, took a break from classes, and they had a routine for who will make dinner on what nights and who would pick everyone up from school, work or practice. Sometimes they had sandwiches for dinner, but it was easier to manage this year.
“She’s a little bit older than the other women, but I guess in that respect, they certainly look up to her,” head coach Tom Lyons said. “She also is a great teammate and very supportive of all the women she trains with.”
Before coming to San Francisco, Lewis had only run in one track meet since leaving Boise. It left her feeling like she would never run again, but it only took a few months to get back into shape once she arrived.
“The first couple months were tragic,” she said. “… Once I started feeling better, it became like second nature. I got my confidence back, and I was excited to keep going and keep pushing.
Her rhythm was briefly interrupted, when the community college she attended made a mistake with a class, causing her to miss the first indoor track season with San Francisco State. After the mistake was sorted out, she had a successful outdoor season, taking home a second-place finish at nationals in 2018.
This season had its own challenges. At the NCAA Division II Indoor Track and Field Championships in March, she hit the last hurdle and smacked her head on the ground. The concussion it caused kept her from running hurdles again until May, when she ran at the California Collegiate Athletic Association Conference Championships in San Diego after about two months of not being able to race. It was her last chance to qualify for nationals. Anxiety plagued her before the 100m preliminary race.
After Lewis’s mother came over to encourage her, and help her calm down, Lewis stepped into the blocks and took a deep breath as she readied. After clearing the hurdles, she told herself, “All you have to do is finish.”
“I was finally on the other side of the hill … finally over the mental barrier of feeling like I couldn’t finish a race,” Lewis said.
She posted a qualifying time of 13.42.
“Six months of training and then you have 13, hopefully 12 seconds or less, to determine your whole season,” Dalton said. “It was probably one of the most proud and joyous moments of the season.”