No one had ever seen anything like it: Francena McCorory transforming herself for 51.93 seconds into a runaway freight train – scorching the flat, 200-meter oval with such speed and power that you forgot anyone else was in the race.
It was the NSAF’s 2006 Nike Indoor Nationals at the PG Sportsplex in Landover, MD, and the action had been pretty good for a day and a half. But as McCorory thundered down the home stretch for the final time on that March Sunday afternoon in the girls’ 400 final and crossed the line, the scoreboard flashing 51.31 (later corrected), the crowd erupted with such rapturous wonder and amazement – you’d have thought they’d simultaneously discovered they all had winning lottery tickets.
Bethel HS (VA) Coach Eddie Williams had watched his intensely focused senior from the stands, his nerves on fire even though they had prepared for this moment for months. So now there was some relief with the fantastic result – but he was also awash with the overwhelming reaction of the thousands who had come to see what McCorory could do. “It’s hard to describe,” he says, “I’d been to just about every NSAF championship and other championships, as well, but I had never seen that much electricity at a track meet.”
That’s perhaps what McCorory remembers most, too, nearly 12 years later – that electricity. “I still recall the atmosphere, that feeling,” she says. “It was like when I crossed the line and the time went up, the whole stadium was in an uproar. I’ll never forget it.”
The late Michael Byrnes, then the NSAF chairman emeritus, wanted to make sure no one else ever forgot it, either. He spontaneously brought the meet to a full stop, grabbed a microphone and called the exhausted McCorory back onto the track.
“This was the greatest high school performance I’ve ever seen,” he declared, commencing an interview. Since Byrnes had witnessed the plurality of great marks in the sport over 50-plus years – including all 23 previous national indoor championships – that was saying something.
McCorory’s 51.93 had beaten the 52.10 set by Sanya Richards from 2002. But here’s the thing: Richards had run her time on the superfast, banked oval at The Armory. You just didn’t break 200 and 400 records on flat tracks like the PG Sportsplex. But McCorory could … and did.
That time has never been approached in a flat track since, and probably never will be. Only Sydney McLaughlin, in 2016 and '17, has been able to best 51.93 on a banked track.
The preparation: A long-term plan come to fruition
Now you might think it was just during that winter, as McCorory clocked great performances leading into NIN, that her record potential became evident. But Coach Williams – who retired from Bethel HS in 2016 after 24 championship-filled years – says he knew it from the start.
“I remember meeting this little 9th-grader (back in 2002) who didn’t want to go to class,” he says. “But the way she handled her very first workout, running with my juniors and seniors, I could tell she was really something special. She just had to grow and come into her own. I figured she would be a great 400 runner, but it took some time to convince her.”
McCorory experienced some great sprint success her first three years at Bethel – particularly as a junior with 3rd- and 6th-place finishes in the Nike Outdoor 200 and 100, plus a 3rd at USA Juniors with a PR 23.22. She had “always kind of avoided the 400.” But by the start of her senior year, she bought into Williams’ vision of the 400 and that August – August! – then set a course to break the national 400 record, nearly six months ahead.
Coach Williams knew that he could take McCorory to the NSIC nationals at The Armory to go for the record. “But if we could do it at the Nike meet in Maryland, that would be phenomenal,” he says. “No one would expect it and it would be very hard for anyone to ever break it.” It also meant hundreds of McCorory fans from Hampton, not to mention Virginia in general, could drive up to watch. The PG Sportsplex would be so flooded with fans that day that the fire marshal had to stop more from coming in.
In Virginia, they don’t race the 400 indoors, so as the season began back in December, 2005, McCorory began racking up strong 300 and 500m marks, mostly on flat tracks. When she hit the banked oval at the Virginia Tech Invite in late January, she captured the nation’s attention with a sizzling 300 national record of 36.96. “That gave me a lot of confidence,” she remembers.
Three weeks later at her regional meet at CNU, McCorory showed spectacular range with a US#2 6.86 triumph at 55m and a nation-leading 1:11.97 at 500m (then #3 all-time). She tripled the 55-300-500 at the state meet two weeks later, and then it was on to Landover.
One might think McCorory felt the weight of expectations coming into NIN with a record-attempt at hand, but the opposite was true. “I never recall feeling any pressure,” she says. “I remember warming up on the practice track there that day, and Coach just telling me to just have fun and be Francena McCorory.”
Coach Williams’ philosophy was to set goals early with a long-term plan to achieve. “You don’t usually just do records out of the blue,” he says. “When you’re prepared for the race like she was, you don’t usually feel that pressure.
“I remember on the meet day we had a warm-up plan,” he adds, “but three-quarters of the way through it, she said ‘I’m ready, I don’t need to do any more.’ She wasn’t nervous and I could tell she was ready to go.”
McCorory’s performance shortly thereafter remains one of the most mind-boggling moments in prep track history – and the thousands who witnessed it would likely agree. It’s also true that the very few people in the small space just beyond the finish line right after that race will also never forget what they saw: McCorory lying on the track right afterward, while Coach Williams helped take off her spikes and massaged her screaming muscles and feet, then rising to her feet for a most moving coach-athlete moment.
“You asked for it, Coach,” she said, gently taking Williams’ face in her hands. “I gave it to you.”
The aftermath: A great NCAA and pro career
The spring of McCorory’s senior year at Bethel was tough: A hamstring injury cut short her season before her state meet and hopes for outdoor glory were curtailed.
Then instead of going to a NCAA D-1 powerhouse, she stuck close to home to go to Hampton University. After some ups and downs, she was healthy and running better than ever by her junior year in 2009, winning the NCAA indoor 400 title and taking 3rd outdoors. Then at the 2010 NCAA Indoors, she again made jaws drop with an American record 50.54 at 400 – beating Diane Dixon’s 19-year-old mark.
McCorory was truly a world-class quarter-miler at this point and she won again at NCAA outdoors and took 2nd with a 50.52 at USATFs. International success has followed as she made seven U.S. teams between 2011-2016, winning three 4x400 gold medals – highlighted by 2012 London Olympics. She also captured individual 400 gold in the 2014 World Indoor Champs and bronze in the 2011 World Outdoor Champs.
Asked about her favorite post-high school performances over the years, McCorory points to that indoor 400 record in 2009, plus her PR victory of 49.48 at the 2014 USATF Outdoor meet in Sacramento.
It’s been very gratifying for Coach Williams to see his star pupil’s success in the past decade. “We try and get our kids to a high level while they’re here, but prepared to be able to keep improving in college and beyond. So it’s been great to watch Francena have a very nice career.”
That magic 2006 day in Maryland, however – fulfilling the months of preparation and a coach/athlete vision – remains very high on McCorory’s resume. So do those years at Bethel with Coach Williams.
“Coach Eddie was like our dad,” she says, “He was a father figure to many of us whose fathers were absent in our lives. We had the best of both worlds with him … he wasn’t just a track coach, but he prepared us for life.”
Photo credits: 2006 NIN race photos by Vic Sailer; 2006 Virginia Tech Invite with Mike Byrnes, courtesy DyeStat.com (Brandon Miles photo); 2012 with President Obama, courtesy Francena McCorory; 2005 with Coach Williams, courtesy DyeStat.com (Donna Dye photo).