Courtesy Brooks Running
Allie Buchalski is racing ahead.
The professional runner, 26, is hoping to compete in the Tokyo Summer Olympics for Team USA in the women's 5,000m. Though she's feeling great ahead of the make-or-break track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon, which begin Friday, Buchalski says she's worked hard - and come a long way through the last year.
"To some extent was a little bit of less pressure … but with that brought its own problems," Buchalski says of the postponement. "Our teams separated just for safety concerns and we're all living different places in different bubbles, so we no longer met as a team and were on our own for a while. I came here to run with the team and I thrive in that kind of environment. I like seeing our coaches and the rest of the girls and guys, so not being around that with hard from a mental standpoint."
Courtesy Brooks Running
Life got even more complicated when Buchalski suffered a hip misalignment in late April 2020 that was initially difficult to diagnose. The injury lingered, taking her out of training for the summer.
Recalling her frustration and that it was "very painful" to move, the long-distance runner, her chiropractor and athletic trainer decided that taking a break for a few months would be best - though it took a mental toll.
As the long-term approach to healing positioned her for a successful return to training in the fall, Buchalski sought help from another professional to reach a healthier headspace.
"I reached out to a sport psychologist, and I worked with him throughout my injury and kind of coping with that, almost an identity crisis," she tells PEOPLE. "I was like 'Well, not only are the Olympics not happening this year, but I also can't even run.' I couldn't really exercise for a bit there."
"I still work with him, less frequently, and I've got two feet on the ground again, but I couldn't really see it at the time," she explains. "The thing that was hard to see in a sport where you finish the race, and you have your name next to the time. You're in an ordered list of who finished first and who finished last. And then not even being on that list at all was very difficult."
Buchalski says the sports psychologist ultimately helped her see the beauty of being in her own lane.
"A big thing with the sports psych was kind of getting rid of that comparison game, especially when you see it over social [media] and that stuff," she recalls. "It just wasn't healthy."
Forced to focus on the present to stop racing with worry, Buchalski had a breakthrough.
"Instead of focusing on what everyone else was doing and seeing that huge gap, it was focusing on 'Okay, you aren't doing those things yet. You're not running those places, but that doesn't mean you won't. Focus on the day you're in right now, and how can we make the next day slightly better than that.' "
After her time off and carefully training for her official return, Buchalski smashed her personal record at the Sound Running Invite in California in March 2021, clocking 14:57 in the 5,000m. The lightning-quick time qualified her for the Olympic trials and still stands as the fourth-fastest 5,000m time in the world, per World Athletics.
Looking ahead to the trials, the athlete is ready to meet her moment at last.
"Right now, I'm really healthy. I'm running the best I've ever have. And between me and making a team right now, all there is, is my head," she tells PEOPLE. "And so I'm really glad we did the work back last summer that set the tone. Unless I fall or do something drastic, that's what's going to keep me from performing at my best."
"We work on mental tools of getting through that moment, just staying very calm and relaxed, even though this is a high-stress environment for everyone competing. There's a lot on the line and we all want the same thing," she explains.
"[The sports psychologist] has helped me learn how to manage that better than I have before, even when I was healthy," she muses of how it all worked out. "And so I think that it's a blessing in disguise."
To learn more about all the Olympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin July 23rd on NBC.