HAMPTON — Hampton University track and field coach Maurice Pierce will tell anyone who will listen that the Olympic Trials for track and field are more challenging than the actual Olympics.
"You have to go against high-caliber athletes in America and you can only take the top three (in an event), and we have the best athletes in the world," Pierce said.
Hampton's Francena McCorory and Yvette Lewis both know the challenge of the Olympic Trials after falling short in 2008. Having four years to mature and improve, McCorory, Lewis and other area track athletes look to make the cut for London in the trials starting Thursday in Eugene, Ore.
McCorory, a Bethel High graduate, placed fourth in the world championships in the 400 meters, making her "more hungry" to finish in the top three at the trials, which Pierce says he is confident she will. As McCorory looked back on her first Olympic Trials, she said she was young and her mind wasn't as strong as it is now.
"Honestly, the first time I don't think she wanted to go," Pierce said. "She was young and wasn't sure about her future and what she wanted to do. I don't think she was really motivated to go. This time is a different story."
McCorory has signed with Adidas, as she has fully committed herself to making the Olympic team, training with Pierce in Hampton. During the week, she lifts weights from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. before going to the track from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Her diet has no junk food and consists of mostly lean, high protein intake, with absolutely no fat.
While McCorory said her mental toughness was a weak point when she qualified for the trials in 2008, Pierce sees it as one of her strengths now. Having trained two Olympians in James Carter and David Payne, Pierce sees the best of both of them in McCorory, as he said she has Payne's mental toughness and Carter's physical talent in being able to run a race in amazing time.
In training, McCorory and Pierce have focused on her overall race strategy as well as endurance-based training to help prepare her for the three rounds at the trials. The hard work has paid off as McCorory is running her fastest 400 time of 50.06, which McCorory said "isn't a bad place to coming into the Olympic Trials."
Her coach said he thinks it's a great place.
"We're excited with it because it's the second-fastest time in the U.S. and the fourth fastest time in the world," Pierce said.
McCorory keeps up occasionally with fellow Hampton teammates Lewis, a Menchville graduate, and Kellie Wells, who will reunite Wednesday in Eugene. Lewis has been training in San Diego, Calif., to run the 100-meter hurdles, while Wells has been in Florida also training for the 100-meter hurdles.
Pierce said he hasn't been in touch with Lewis recently, but that he is a friend of Wells' coach and that based on the times that she has posted, she could be poised to make the Olympic team.
Virginia Tech will have five athletes in Eugene. Darrell Wesh and Keith Ricks are slated to compete in the 100 meters. Ricks also is scheduled to run the 200 meters. Michael Hammond will be in the men's 1,500 meters. Ronnie Black Jr. qualified in the high jump, and Samantha Dow is the lone Hokie female athlete heading to Eugene for the 1,500 meters.
U.Va. also will be represented at the trials: Marcus Robinson in the high jump, Andrew Fahringer in the men's javelin throw and Morgane Gay in the women's 1,500 meters.
LaShawn Merritt, of Portsmouth, is slated to run in the men's 400. Merritt won gold in the 2008 Games with a time of 43.75 in the 400 and was a member of the gold-medal winning 4x400 relay team. He was marred in a doping scandal and banned from the sport for 21 months. He returned to earn silver at the world championships in 2011.
While McCorory said she was young and not mentally ready for her first Olympic Trials, Lewis said she remembered thinking about her mother. Lews' mom also ran track, but didn't make the Olympics, though the two haven't talked about that much before this year's trials. Lewis said the only conversations she's had with her mom recently about the Olympics revolve around when she can watch her daughter on TV.
"It's weird because you almost want to think about it, but not think about it," Lewis said. "If I think about it too much, then I won't run as fast, so I just mentally think about running the races I have. Making sure you're mentally prepared is the main thing because if you're not mentally prepared, then you're not going to be good."
Part of McCorory's mental preparation resembles Lewis' — she doesn't like to dwell on past races. After being so close to medaling at the world championships, McCorory changed her race preparation. She said she wasn't pleased with how she didn't set up her race in order to be at a certain mark at the end of it.
The expectations for McCorory and Pierce are simple: Win the whole thing, and if you can't do that, then make sure you're in the top three. If that happens, Pierce gets giddy at what kind of feat that would be for the community of Hampton.
"We have a lot of people in the area who have done great things in the NBA or the NFL, but none of those guys went to a university here locally," Pierce said. "Francena touched on all three of them — she's from Hampton, went to Hampton University and she's still training here. With her it would be more significant because she never left, she did everything here."