High School Sports

Teen star sprints toward Olympics

Standing near the track, you can hear the whir, like a bicycle, when Gabby Mayo runs past.

She's that fast.

She will race you up the stairs, skipping two at a time to beat you. One day, she hopes to beat everyone and become one of the fastest sprinters and hurdlers ever.

"I am going to be the best in the world for the next few years or more," she said.

Mayo, a senior at Southeast Raleigh High School, has set her sights on the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In August, she wants to compete in the world championships in Osaka, Japan.

To make those dreams come true, Mayo must navigate a long, uncertain road. As talented as she is -- she was the No. 1-ranked high school sprinter in the nation last year -- there are no guarantees of success as she tries to move from high school competition to college and the pros.

Between now and the Olympics, the 18-year-old will have to strengthen her 5-foot-6, 126-pound frame and change her diet to lay off the Bojangles'. She will have to tweak her technique and cope with tougher competition.

She will be asked to grow socially yet stay grounded in church and academics while competing in a sport damaged by links to steroids and other performance-enhancing substances.

Again and again, she will have to top an already impressive list of feats. Mayo will receive support from coaches and family members but will have to rely on intellect, savvy and speed to fulfill her promise.

"Gabby's potential is unlimited, if it's tapped the right way," said Mike Byrnes, co-founder of the National Scholastic Sports Foundation and an observer of track and field for nearly 50 years.

"Can she be another Marion Jones? That would be ridiculous to say yes or no. Who knows? But she's as close to it as anybody I've seen."

An early sign of speed

As a baby, Mayo would dash between her mom and her aunt, who would wait for her at opposite ends of a narrow hallway.

"She ran and ran and ran and ran," said her mother, Sandra Mayo.

It all began with those baby strides.

Treshell Mayo-Herndon, the aunt who stood in the hallway and later introduced Mayo to track in the seventh grade, said, "We laugh about it because it was a sign."

Mayo would become one of North Carolina's most acclaimed female high school track and field athletes ever. She would win 12 state championships and break six state records. Raleigh would proclaim Nov. 7, 2006, Gabrielle Mayo Day. She would earn the 2006 youth athlete of the year award from USA Track and Field and Track and Field News' top female high school honor.

Mayo showed her speed last year as a junior when she ran the nation's fastest 100- and 200-meter girls' high school times -- 11.16 seconds and 22.88 seconds.

For comparison, three-time Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones, who attended UNC-Chapel Hill, ran an 11.14-second 100 in high school. Four-time NCAA 100-meter champion Angela Williams owns the high school record of 11.11 seconds.

"I'm racing the clock, not people beside me," Mayo said in her soft voice.

Coaches keep her focused

Mayo has learned to dedicate herself to track the way John Coltrane devoted himself to music theory.

She trains six days a week at St. Augustine's College with Aunt Treshell, a former state champion and All-American sprinter at Clemson University, and a private coach, Stephen Hayes, who joined Team Mayo a year ago.

They work to keep Mayo focused because she admits she "hates practice" and would rather talk on the cell phone or get manicures at the mall. She welcomes any chance to break the monotony of training, striking a model pose or playfully swinging at Hayes. She got an iPod for Christmas and dances to the music of singer Ciara to ease the pain of sprints and squats.

This season, she has practiced less often with her Southeast teammates and will run only in select high school events, maintaining a national race schedule that is designed to help her peak in the critical summer months.

Mayo enjoys the spotlight and glows after she wins. She flashes an electric smile.

"She has that look of a champion," said Jim Spier, director of the Nike Outdoor Nationals, who lives in Chapel Hill.

Mayo is fashion-conscious and chooses sleek-fitting outfits that give her a professional look. She prefers soft colors, especially her favorite pink. Away from the track, she dresses down in jeans or up in a skirt.

During indoor meets, she wears contacts; at outdoor events, gold-colored prescription sunglasses. Those often match her gold-colored spikes.

Sometimes Mayo's personality is as bright as her shoes. One moment she is engaging and the next silly.

At a recent workout, Hayes wanted Mayo to pull her knees higher as she ran.

"Lift more," he instructed.

"I declare war?" Mayo replied, twisting his words.

"I'm going to hit you with a rock," Hayes said.

"No, you're not," she said.

Yet Mayo is an introvert who confides mainly in her family and warms slowly to strangers. It is a natural instinct considering she is the oldest of 23 nieces and nephews and has nine doting aunts and uncles.

She looks for every opportunity to spend time with friends at basketball games and parties, although her track schedule precludes much down time. On free weekends, she works part time as a sales clerk at Triangle Town Center.

Liz Peartree Gary, an assistant coach at Southeast Raleigh, coached Mayo at North Garner Middle School. She talks about her pupil's innate competitiveness and stony presence at meets. But she knows a softer Mayo, one who baby-sits and asks for hugs at practice.

"That's the side people don't know," said Gary, who has used Mayo as a baby-sitter.

Gary said it is hard for outsiders, sometimes even teammates, to separate Mayo the athlete from Mayo the person.

At the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A indoor championships this month, she mingled with Southeast teammates, yet during warm-up before the 55-meter dash, she high-stepped in silence. She captured a second consecutive title and tied her own state record (6.87 seconds).

Later, after Southeast Raleigh captured both the boys' and girls' state titles, she celebrated with the team, posed for a group picture and passed the state trophy to friends.

Still, Mayo says she must turn inward to concentrate on every phase of a race because so many people are watching.

"Last year, they weren't really looking at me," she said. "Now they really are. They're looking like, 'She better run good.' "

Nevertheless, she said, "I approach it as I'm here to run in my lane. ... I don't worry what anyone else says."

When outside voices intrude, she can rely on her family. She lives in North Raleigh with her mother, who manages the family's adult-care business. Mayo is close to her dad, Daryle McNair, a bus driver who lives in Garner.

Mayo, who has a 3.7 grade-point average, plans to attend Texas A&M University next fall. She'll study to become a doctor and will train with Pat Henry and Vince Anderson, veteran coaches with former Olympians on their resumes.

With a strong outdoor season, she might be tempted to turn professional, a possibility that draws even more attention.

"Everybody's talking about her," said Clayton High's star hurdler, Johnny Dutch. "When her race comes up, they want to see her. Even long- distance runners talk about her."

She hates to lose, can't hide it

From the start, Mayo never obsessed about track, hardly talked about it, but everyone knew she hated losing.

"I think that's why she stayed in the sport, " Treshell Mayo-Herndon said, "because she wanted to prove to people she deserved to be there."

Rose Monday, the coach of the girls' 2006 U.S. world junior team, spent several weeks with Mayo last summer. She noticed talent right away, but it took longer to identify Mayo's competitiveness.

She saw the spark as Mayo grabbed the baton on the anchor leg of the 4x100 relay race at the Road to Eugene meet in August. As if projected from a slingshot, Mayo lifted the team to victory and a world junior record.

"She got the stick from behind ... maybe 10 meters back, and she just took off," Monday recalled. "And I thought, 'Oh, my god, this girl is going to be really good.' "

A few weeks later, Mayo anchored that same team to a gold medal in the World Junior Championships in Beijing sponsored by the International Association of Athletics Federation.

After Mayo's potential became clear last summer, her mother noticed a budding maturity, a newfound commitment to develop her gifts.

"There was a transformation in Gabby," Sandra Mayo said. "She went from a caterpillar to a butterfly."

Mayo will need to transform many more times to compete at the next levels of competition, where everyone is fast and most have Olympic aspirations.

Mayo saw this when she participated last month in the Reebok Boston Indoor Games -- her first competition against professionals. She was the first high school athlete ever invited to the event.

Unusually nervous as she faced chiseled former NCAA champions and veteran sprinters, Mayo finished last, in eighth place.

Tension before the 60-meter race, televised on ESPN2, had her biting her nails at the starting line. She was so anxious she couldn't raise her hand for a timeout to adjust in her blocks and had a terrible start.

Afterward, Mayo walked around dazed, close to tears. She signed autographs for children but rarely looked anyone in the eye. In answering questions, she mumbled five words: "I wasn't nervous until today."

Back at the Jurys Boston Hotel, Mayo's sulk and limp limbs told the story. This was not how she envisioned her birthday weekend ending.

She could not believe that nearly 5,000 people watched her run 60 meters in 7.50 seconds. The winning time was 7.24 seconds. A week before, she had run 55 meters in 6.90. Mayo said it felt as though she ran in slow motion, as if running outside her body.

Surrounded by positive vibes, she soaked in encouragement. Her aunt said, "Brush it off." Her mom reiterated how proud she was. Her dad phoned. Coach Hayes explained that nervousness caused her to burn energy and she couldn't catch up.

Eventually, Mayo calmed down and began to laugh again and talked casually on her cell phone. By the following Monday, she had left her frigid Boston experience behind, her confidence restored.

She was Gabby again -- a precocious young sprinter ready to take off down another hallway.

Ready, perhaps, to run all the way to the Olympics.

"I did well last year," she said. "I want to take it a step further. I ran fast, now it's time to run faster."