Setting goals and achieving them is the path that’s transformed one Olympic contender from a 17-year-old with a gig under the “golden arches” to a world-class athlete taking her shot at bringing home a gold medal at the Tokyo games.
Quanesha Burks was raised by her grandparents. As a teen, she worked long hours at McDonald’s, earning what she could to help support her family. Even so, she says she happily went to work each day because she saw her labors as an investment in a bigger game plan that included attending college.
From early on, Burks excelled at sports. In high school, she realized her athletic prowess might be the ticket to a college scholarship. Initially, her choice of sport was a toss-up between basketball and track, but once she’d taken third at the 2012 USATF National Junior Olympics, her course was set.
After researching the requirements for a full ride, Burks set her goals down on paper and stuck to them. By the time she graduated from Hartselle High School, she’d earned 11 state track titles and a scholarship to the University of Alabama.
With an impressive NCAA indoor long jump title in 2015 followed by an outdoor win in 2016, Burks racked up All-America Honors, but even with her many achievements, her road to the Olympics has had its own share of hurdles.
In 2018, Burks finished a disappointing fourth at the World Athletics Indoor Championships. The following year, her beloved grandfather passed away one week prior to the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Understandably, her performance suffered.
By the time 2020 rolled around, Burks was back in a winning groove. Then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most sporting events, leaving her and other hopeful athletes in limbo. She continued to train until a bone injury sidelined her for nearly three months.
“It felt like all the odds were against me,” Burks told Sports Illustrated. “At one point, my coach told me, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to physically be able to go to the trials.’ The doctors didn’t know if I would be back in time… I was facing so much, but I kept going back to when I worked at McDonald’s. I had my goals set and I knew I could do it.”
Although forced to refrain from her usual rigorous activities, Burks remained determined to achieve her Olympic dreams. To keep her spirits up, she recorded a series of positive affirmations and posted them to her TikTok page.
During the trials for the Tokyo Olympics, her tenacity paid off. At age 25, with a long-jump personal best of 6.96 meters, Burks took an overall third, securing her spot on the Team USA roster.
“It’s a blessing to be like one from my hometown in a small community, really just representing myself, but Hartselle, the University of Alabama and the state of Alabama,” Burks told CBS News-19. “Knowing that I’m representing us in Tokyo is just a blessing, it’s an honor and I’m so proud of the other Olympians.”
While Quanesha Burks is well aware she might not be a high-profile as some of her teammates, she reasons it’s because she’s taken a different path to get where she is—and that’s fine with her.
“I didn’t have everything laid out for me. I didn’t have all the eyes on me. I feel like still to this day I get overlooked. That’s okay,” she told Sports Illustrated. “I just know it all starts with your confidence within. Everything I’ve become is because of my mindset and my determination… It’s been a journey and it all started with a little girl working at McDonald’s and here I am.”
Although scoring the cover of a Wheaties box would be nice, even if she doesn’t medal at Tokyo, Burks hopes it’s her legacy of hard work and determination that will ultimately serve as an inspiration for other up-and-coming Olympians working a day job until they can live the dream.