Humans of HOKA: Latoya Shauntay Snell

Latoya smiles at the camera.

For Latoya Shauntay Snell, an ultrarunner, multi-sport athlete, chef and all-around renaissance woman, being in the spotlight isn’t always easy. Often, it’s far from it. And yet, Snell continually stays true to her authentic voice in a way that reminds all of us of the importance of inspiring ourselves.

“It doesn’t matter what everyone else says about me if I can’t speak to myself kindly,” says Snell. “When it comes down to the term ‘inspiring,’ you have to inspire yourself. You have to go back to self-reflection. You need to ask yourself, 'how can I impress myself every day even if it’s only one thing?’”

After filming with Snell for a Humans of Hoka film featuring a poem she wrote, Fleet Feet caught up with her to talk about poetry, authenticity, eating disorders and how sport is artistic expression, too.

Latoya Shauntay Snell runs by the water.

FF: Running started as a fitness journey for you, but it has now transformed into something much bigger. What does running mean to you?

LS: There are so many things that I never even thought that I was capable of doing. When I think back to 2013 and taking up sports as a way of losing weight, I initially thought that would be the end all be all, that it would make me lose weight, make people like me, make me something else … make me this character I wanted to take on and embody.

But within months I realized how much fun I was having, I didn't obsess about the scale or what I was eating. I realized that running is freedom. And it’s a canvas in itself. It’s an act that many of us can do, but not many of us can take advantage of. And sometimes, we don’t realize the power that running has.

FF: How has being in the public eye impacted your journey personally?

LS: People get caught up in this perception of what they think an athlete should do and look like. But it’s not really the public’s fault. The media shaped this reality that athletes are perfect, that they eat a certain way, that they train a certain way, that they talk a certain way, etc.

I got caught up in this, too. I didn’t want people to look at me and think I'm a fraud. I felt like if I don’t look the part, then I can't be part of the community. It was the worst decision I ever made in my life. It made me depressed, erratic. I became very obsessive. I censored my workouts on “earning” meals.

I didn't think that someone like me could end up with an eating disorder because I remember a time when food wasn’t guaranteed. I grew up poor and in a food desert, but my father and I cooked beside each other, and that experience taught me a deep love for food. But telling people how much I love food, for a while, felt like a layer of shame.

And it’s still hard when I get feedback from the public about how I need to stop “picking up the plate” so much. I have to remind myself to trust myself. And the flipside of this last year of COVID is that I do know better how to listen to my voice more than ever before. When you are so accustomed to being on the attack mode you don’t know how to thrive in the moment. It took me so many years to get there, where I could, after being bullied for so long.

Latoya sits at a desk while writing.

FF: Talk about the poem from the film. You used to write and perform spoken word. What was the experience like to create and recite this poem for the film and what is the inspiration behind the words?

LS: The poem started off as self-reflection. It was a way of acknowledging that I have to inspire myself before I can inspire others. How do I inspire my own reflection? It takes away the burden of letting people down because I was beginning to feel like I may never be able to top the thing that made me inspiring to others in the first place.

When we give ourselves the opportunity to inspire and admire ourselves, we realize it’s not as scary or as overwhelming as our minds tell us it will be.

So when I started to write the poem, I began by being moved by that feeling. It was like being reintroduced to this layer of myself that I didn’t know still existed. I wrote without interruptions to see how it flowed. It was a layer that I was told I shouldn’t show. It was listening to myself and my voice versus the voices of everyone around me.

Then we recorded the voiceover in several different pitches. An upbeat way, another way, one from the depths of my diafram. The version that’s in the film is recorded the way that I would read poetry to my Dad. He’s someone who I could always have open conversations with and not feel judged.

FF: Speaking of the voices of others and being judged, you’ve dealt with a lot of negative commentary over the years. And that’s putting it lightly. What do you wish those commenters could know or understand?

I still decide to be vulnerable even when people beat me down. I think that is a super power for me, because I do this in the best way I can. Even when I feel like I am at 20 percent, it is my 100 percent. And I think that scares people.

The more we are willing to live in our truth, the more we’re willing to be that raw, even when others would not do the same, the more we’re able to be in the moment. In this scenario, when I receive judgement from the public, it’s hard because no one else is living my experience. Who are they to say these things?

At the same time, I wish that closed-minded people would go beyond choosing to be kind, but to be open-minded that not everyone is going to share your same views, and that your personal truth may not be somebody else's truth, but that those things can co-exist.

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