Beauty tips, bobsledding trips and black girl magic: A Q&A with Olympians Aja Evans and Kehri Jones
The 2018 Winter Olympics are less than three months away. As a child, I experienced a major endorphin rush during the Olympics. As an adult, I’m flooded with nostalgic memories of curling up in bed with my grandma, while watching figure skaters gracefully crack the ice, as the smell of homemade oatmeal cookies wafted through the home.
In the first 10 seconds of the latest Olympics-themed promo, a young black child gleefully jumps up and down on her bed as she admires posters of Olympic champions plastered on her wall. She’s standing in the doorway to the bedroom, beaming with joy as she watches her child dream away, then the mother’s smile suddenly fades away.
In that moment, I understood the mother’s pain, as she watched her daughter compare her potential to the blonde, white women on her posters. The worry that her baby girl would face disproportionate experiences than those women struck home. As a black trans woman, I didn’t see people who looked like me growing up.
While my mother has always loved me unconditionally, she feared that the world wouldn’t see me at face value the way she did. Like the mother in the commercial, that didn’t stop her from encouraging me to be my best version despite the obstacles that laid ahead.
Aja Evans and Kehri Jones are two black women who’ll be representing the U.S. women’s bobsled team at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which get underway in February. They are also ambassadors for Procter and Gamble’s #LoveOverBias campaign.
They certainly inspired me, and their answers even gave me hope for girls like the one in the commercial. Love doesn’t only overcome bias — it overcomes all the odds. Wheaties may be the breakfast of champions, but love is the secret recipe to their success.
Mic: Society often conditions women to assume traditional gender roles. In what ways have you pushed back in resistance of those norms?
Kehri Jones: My mom set me up so that I can work hard and do what I love while taking care of myself — not having to rely on anybody else. Women’s bobsled is also new to women as it’s only been in the Olympics since 2002. As one of the best teams in the nation, we’re doing what we can to continue engaging high-level athletes to stay involved.
Aja Evans: The further I go in my athletic career, the more I realize how much we defy those gender roles. I was just going into bobsled as an athlete and the strong African-American woman my mom groomed me to be. It ended up becoming my passion. I mean, bobsled… it’s predominantly a European sport and not too many people in the sport looked like me. Now it stands for something more. Women alone are continuing to shock the world and people are finally starting to catch up and see the impact we have.
What does it mean for you to have the opportunity to represent not only the United States, but black women, at the Olympics?
KJ: It’s a lifelong dream to be part of something bigger than myself. It would be the highest honor to have a chance to represent my country in the Olympics [and] more importantly, to inspire the next generation of little black girls, black teens and black women, making it clear that we do rock and we are more than just athletes. We are smart, we are strong and we also contribute to this country to make it what it is.
AE: To have the opportunity to represent not only the United States but black women in the Olympics is such a good feeling. Initially I didn’t realize the impact I had as it pertains to black women and the empowerment I could offer with my platform. Now I do, and represent how I can. I’m honored to inspire people all across the world. I feel my teammates are honored to be black women in this sport and making it as far as we have. You can see the growth in the sport throughout other countries — you see more African-American women in Germany, Canada, Nigeria… you have Jamaica too… so it’s starting to really grow.
If you could go back in time, what piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
KJ: Your life is full of endless possibilities, work hard, enjoy the experience and never take things too serious — never stop having fun.
AE: Keep that fire. So many people try to dim your light early on in life and try to shape you into what you should and should not be based on their feelings. Keep that fire in your heart, hold on to what you want to do, then fight for that and don’t let anyone get in your way or try and turn you away from it.
Who inspired you the most growing up?
KJ: My biggest inspiration would have to be my mom. Growing up in a military family, all I had was my mom. She never let me give up on anything and always made sure I was the best that I could be no matter what. My other inspiration is my late great grandmother — she is the reason my mom and I have the fight we do. She raised my mom to be all that she could be and expected nothing less from us. She showed me what true perseverance is while defying all odds. She inspired me with all of her stories and pep talks. I knew I could talk to both of these beautiful ladies and get honest answers. I never came away empty handed. I’m who I am today because of them.
AE: Growing up, my mother was my biggest inspiration and still is. She’s always believed in me no matter what I wanted to do, even if it was me pursuing bobsled. She’s always had a big impact on my life. I watched her raise all of us alone, and she did great. We’re successful because she’s always been there. I pray with her before every race. She has such a big impact in my life.
What message of empowerment would you give to other women who aspire to live an adventurous, purposeful life?
KJ: Go after what will make you happy. Don’t be afraid to go against the grain and be freaking awesome at whatever you do.
AE: Have fun and enjoy the journey. A lot of times we think we have to have our lives figured out. I’ve had the most success in my life when I’ve had a door close in my face that I thought was the end-all be-all and so many opportunities have opened up for me after that. Understand that it’s not always going to be the way you think it should be. Embrace the journey. Take it for what it is, and enjoy the ride. Find your true passion along the way.
There’s this myth that black female athletes can’t be glamorous. How do you challenge that stereotype? What are some of your beauty secrets for maintaining hair, skin and makeup while meeting the challenge of an athletic lifestyle?
KJ: I actually have a very low maintenance routine. I don’t normally wear a lot of makeup. I try to make sure my skin stays clean. With training, almost every day and wearing helmets that you sweat in, it’s important to make sure your skin stays as clean as possible. It actually took me awhile to find something that helped my hair stay healthy and look nice after wearing a helmet regularly. My beautician and I have found a way to make sure my hair stays moisturized and is able to withstand harsh winters.
AE: I’m into glam no matter what. Athlete or not, I would still look and treat myself the same way. It’s fun because as an athlete, you’re forced to challenge yourself and find beauty secrets and tricks to deal with the different weather condition. And since I deal with cold and dry weather, I love moisturizers for my hair and skin and lips, as well as waterproof products such as waterproof mascara — that’s one of my go-tos — as well as concealer to help brighten up under my eyes and have that natural glow even while I’m competing.
As an Olympian, I’m sure there are many challenges and hurdles one must face. Having an intersectional identity generally tends to amplify those difficulties. What are some of the biases and challenges you’ve personally overcome to become an Olympian?
KJ: I was actually born and raised as a military brat. Living on military bases back then made fitting in very easy because we all didn’t look at the color of each other’s skin, we looked at the person within. I went to my first public school off base in sixth grade, and I had a hard time fitting in there. I didn’t fit in with the science crew, the athletes, the kids with similar personalities or even the black kids. I was actually teased and made fun of for my choice in clothing, which I thought was cute but they said I dressed like a “white girl,” which to this day I don’t exactly understand.
I began to conform to what those kids were doing so I could fit in. This is when I lost myself doing whatever to be in a group, instead of being myself and letting the group find me. It wasn’t until my later years in high school and more so into college, that I was tired of pretending to be someone I wasn’t and began to be myself and accepted for who I am.
AE: Some of the biases I faced were just coming into a sport I had no background in. Everyone told me I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have experience in bobsledding and that it was too short of a window to learn and compete. I felt like they tried to dim my light. I worked very hard to get myself to an athletic level to compete in this sport, but I had to learn everything else as I was going through it. It’s very hard to learn from the people whose spot I’m essentially going to take.
One of the hardships I faced was coming into a new sport, and embracing myself as an African-American in a sport we aren’t apart of. You know, no one else really looks like me — and you go to these other countries and some of the races are in smaller towns and cities and as soon as you get there people will stare at you. People don’t look like us. Understanding where it’s coming from and not letting it affect me and my performance and how I feel about myself was one of the biggest things I had to get over in this sport if I wanted to have success.
What do you hope young black girls will be able to achieve in the future that perhaps is still somewhat of a challenge?
KJ: I hope these young black girls will continue to prove these people wrong when it comes to all the stereotypes we have put against us. No, we are not just baby mamas — we are mothers and wives. No, we are not stupid — we are doctors, lawyers, nurses, business owners and a lot of other professional jobs. And no, we are not just good at being athletes, but we are good at inspiring, mentoring and using our minds. We are black, and we are not the stereotypes others think we are.
AE: I feel like we automatically put a bias on ourselves sometimes, especially being black women and girls. You feel that you can’t do everything that everyone else does because you don’t look like them. So, to come into a sport and take over and make a name for myself as this black girl from the south side of Chicago, it shows that you can do anything you want to do and you can surprise yourself and shock the world if you really want it. One of my main things I want people to take away is to understand that it’s in your hands. If you want it in your heart, and feel that this is your passion, then fight for that and keep your attention there and don’t let negativity and hate get in the way and steer you from your dreams.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
KJ: I see myself in the medical field, helping people to become physically able to do what they never thought they could do and more. Whether that’s in cardiac rehab or personal training, where I have my master’s degree already —or nursing, chiropractor or medical doctor — the options are limitless for me. All are my passion, but I have to choose something and be the best that I can be at it!
AE: I see myself working with kids. That’s where my passion lies and I’m currently working on a foundation with my mom. Its mission is to assist kids. It’s called the AJA Foundation, Aspiring Journeys Ahead — we’re all about providing them with those journeys and helping them figure out their passions, whether it’s sports or other avenues. We just kind of help facilitate that and help provide them with opportunities the same way my mom did for me.