Pierce clips hurdles, but still gets 3rd Ex-Morgan runner refuses to give in


BARCELONA, Spain -- Jack Pierce lost the gold on the first hurdle. The silver slipped away on the third one.

Any other race, he would have slowed his pace, eased in for the finish. But this was the 1992 Summer Olympics, this was the final of the men's 110-meter high hurdles.

"You have to keep it going," Pierce said.

The former Morgan State University sprinter kept running, all the way to a photo finish and the bronze medal last night.

His time of 13.26 seconds was hardly his best. But on a night when he clipped two barriers, when he fell far behind gold medalist Mark McKoy of Canada and U.S. teammate Tony Dees, a bronze would do just fine.

"I feel as if a ton of bricks has just left my shoulders," said Pierce, 29, of Marlton, N.J. "I never thought of myself as an Olympic-caliber athlete."

Of all the up-from-nowhere stories that give the Games their character, Pierce's is among the more enchanting. Raised in New Jersey, he came to Morgan State in 1981 to refine his running style and learn the craft of clearing the 10, 42-inch barriers that define the 110 hurdles.

When he left Baltimore in 1985, he settled in Atlantic City, N.J., working the night shift at a casino, cleaning out quarters from slot machines. He trained afternoons, but didn't have a coach, or even much of a prayer on the international circuit. He was self-taught, and his girlfriend videotaped his practices.

But two years ago, he hooked up with Norman Tate and together they re-created his career. A silver medal at last year's world championships in Tokyo convinced Pierce he could challenge for the Olympic title.

He won the U.S. trials. Swept through his first three rounds at the Olympics. But a pulled muscle in his buttocks may have slowed him in the final.

"I wanted all systems go for the final," he said. "Of course, I was nervous. I just didn't sleep very well all week. My nerves had me eating all the time."

But in the final he kept churning his legs. He clipped two of the first three hurdles. Nearly lost his balance. Yet raced on, edging Great Britain's Tony Jarrett by the narrowest of margins for the bronze.

"I had to get out of the blocks fast," he said. "I was concerned by McKoy's start. I couldn't sit. That put me on the first hurdle too quickly. And that made me hit the third one. But I got through the last seven clean. In the Olympics, you have to realize, it's now, it's here and it's time to put up or shut up."

Somehow, he got his medal. It wasn't gold, but it was fine. After a long career in obscurity, he finally grabbed a piece of the Olympics.

"You know," he said. "For a long time, the biggest meet I was ever in was the 1984 Penn Relays. I was at Morgan State then. And I ran seven events and was the most valuable athlete. Growing up, that meet was like the Olympics to me.

"But now I know what the Olympics are like."

He raced. He hit hurdles. He finished.

"I run 32 meets a year, but nothing like this," he said. "The bigger the meets, the more adrenalin I have. Something inside gets me excited. And this was the biggest meet of my life."

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