HAMPTON ——Francena McCorory's last trip to the Olympic Trials, in 2008, left her coach questioning both the trip and her desire.
"We made a mistake," said Maurice Pierce, Hampton University's track and field coach who has coached McCorory in her specialty, the 400-meter dash, since 2006. "We took her to the 2008 Olympic Trials to try to motivate her, and she went out there and … almost walked across the finish line. She almost didn't even finish the race in the first round.
Both McCorory and Pierce have slightly different expectations for the 2012 Trials, which begin June 22 in Eugene, Ore.
"She should win the 2012 Olympic Trials," Pierce said. "She should win that."
That confidence comes from a turnaround that has been both gradual and sudden for McCorory, a three-time NCAA champion at Hampton after winning 14 individual state titles at Bethel High. McCorory finished 2011, her first year as a professional, ranked No. 4 in the world in the 400 meters after finishing fourth in the event at the IAAF World Championships in late August in South Korea, where she also anchored the U.S.'s gold-medal team in the 4x400-meter relay.
"I got to meet a lot of great athletes and fellowship," McCorory said. "The USA got to come together as a team. Track can be an individual sport, so we got to all come together as a team and as one. It was a very, very good experience.
"… I've just kind of been living on a high since then. Everything's all brand-new, so I'm just excited about everything."
McCorory's career has been filled with highs and lows. After a record-setting high school career that saw her win the 100 and 200 meters in outdoor track three straight years and earn Track and Field News national indoor athlete of the year honors in 2006, she chose to stay close to home and attend Hampton. She arrived with phenomenal raw talent and unlimited potential, but the problems she'd been able to outrun in high school — spotty form, come-and-go confidence, flagging focus and a nagging hamstring injury — led to a rocky start to her collegiate career.
"I had to deal with a lot of frustration with her," Pierce said. "I kicked her off the track, I kicked her out of track meets. I fussed at her so much. Sometimes I used some bad words. I went home with headaches. It just drove me crazy."
Pierce, who coached David Payne, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the 110-meter hurdles, and was an assistant coach at the 2011 Pan Am Junior Championships, had no doubt how good McCorory could be. He just had to convince her.
"Everybody knew she could run at this level, but she just didn't possess the drive and the desire to say she wanted to be a professional track runner," Pierce said.
Eddie Williams can sympathize.
Williams, McCorory's coach at Bethel, learned early that McCorory's special talent required special care.
"Francena needs that kick in the butt," Williams said. "She's a kid that thrives on direction, so as long as she understands the rules of the game, what's expected of her, she lives within the rules. If you don't give her any rules and you don't give her any direction, she takes that as a freedom to do whatever, and she will."
Williams, along with Bethel assistant coach Cantrese Pierce, who is Maurice Pierce's wife and McCorory's godmother, had to stay on McCorory, making sure she practiced, studied and kept working. It was worth it, though, to develop the transcendent talent Williams first encountered when he saw McCorory, an eighth grader, run the 100 meters at an AAU meet.
"She really couldn't get out of the blocks, had never really been taught," Williams said. "She kind of stepped out of the blocks and then ran all but one of the girls down in the 100. … Then, in the 200, she was lined up against the girl that beat her in 100. You could just tell she was angry and she wasn't going to let this kid beat her again. She just absolutely demolished the girl in the 200. She ran a time in the 200 that would have been competitive on the AAA level in high school."
Williams is happy to see that potential coming to Olympic-level fruition, but "what I'm most proud of her (for) is that she graduated from college in four years," he said. "She's the first one in her family to graduate from college. This is from a kid that was a C-D student when she came to Bethel, and I'm probably being generous.
"I got her to focus. She has career goals outside of track, and that's what I'm proud of."