With excitement around her, T'erea Brown remains focused on London

There were signs along the way. For Hampton girls track coach Ron Bayton, one stands out all these years later.

T'erea Brown, his rising star, was a natural hurdler who disliked the shorter races. Bayton tried to convince her that running the short events would make her better overall. So, finally, she entered the 55-meter hurdles in the 2006 Group AAA indoor meet.

It didn't go well. She finished 10th out of 11 runners in the finals, nearly a half-second behind Menchville's Kali Watkins.

Discouraged? More like challenged.

"She told me afterward, 'They'll never beat me outdoors,'" Bayton said.

Three months later, Brown took first in the 100.

"The rest," Bayton said, "is history."

Six years later, T'erea Brown is an Olympian. Despite a stomach virus, she finished third in the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials on July 1. That earned her a spot on the U.S. team, which has been Brown's goal since she began running for Bayton as a 12-year-old.

Afterward, she was so overwhelmed that when an NBC reporter asked how she felt, Brown blurted out, "I don't even know." Now that it's almost here, she's trying not get too juiced about competing in the biggest sporting event in the world.

"Everybody else is so excited, but I'm just trying to stay focused," said Brown, who trains in Miami. "I was excited the first day, but after that it was like, 'OK, I've got work to do.' My excitement level is down now, but I'm sure it'll get back up there when I get to Olympic Village.

"I don't want to make it a bigger deal than it is. It's the same amount of hurdles, it's just different people at a different track."

Still, it's undeniably an exciting time. Basketball players envision themselves in the NBA, football players dream of the NFL. If you're a track athlete, there is no bigger stage than the Olympics.

The first time Brown's name appeared in this newspaper's Sports section was in 2000, when as a 10-year-old she finished sixth out of 27 (the rest were all boys) in a baseball skills competition. Four years later, as a high school freshman, she made the papers after winning the 300 hurdles in the Group AAA meet.

By the time she graduated, Brown had six state championships (three in the 300, two in the 100, one in the 55). Brown still has the state record for 100 hurdles (13.67).

"Coach Bayton never babied me," Brown said. "He always told me that his goal wasn't to make me an Olympian, it was to get me to college. From there, it was my college coach's job to make me an Olympian."

Miami coach Amy Deem, who will also coach the U.S. team in London, did her part. As a junior, Brown became the first Hurricanes athlete to win a title in the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships. She also placed first in the NCAA Championships that year and was named the ACC's Women's Track Performer of the Year.

Brown left Coral Gables with seven All-American honors.

"Coach Deem always pushed me to get to the next level," she said.

Brown did that at the Olympic Trials by finishing third at 54.81. (She hopes to break 54 in London.) Not that she had a good feeling going in.

"Not many people know this, but I was sick," she said. "Right after the semifinals, I ate something bad and I had a stomach virus. I couldn't keep anything down and I didn't want to eat. So my energy level was bad, and I was stressing out about that, too."

As for her "I don't even know" comment when asked how she felt, Brown has taken some good-natured grief for that. When she explains herself, it makes sense.

"I was just so happy the race was over, because of all the years I've been running, it was the most stressful weekend of my life," she said. "Even though I was well-prepared for it and I was one of the favorites, the pressure was so stressful.

"There's always that possibility that something might go wrong. You might get hurt, you might fall, you might false-start — all of that stuff was going to through my head. So when I crossed the (finish) line, I was so glad it's over."

Brown will run in the preliminaries on Aug. 5 at 9 a.m. EDT. The semifinals are Aug. 6 at 10:15 a.m and the finals Aug. 8 at 10:45 a.m. Two-time Olympian Lashinda Demus, the U.S. record holder at 52.47, is considered the favorite in the 400 hurdles.

For Brown, these last few days will be all business — no matter how amazing all this is.

"I have a good 35, 40 missed calls on my phone and a bunch of voice-mails I've yet to listen to," she said. "It's overwhelming. Everybody is coming at you at once, but I've still got work to do."

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