When the first-time Olympian was at Bethel High, she had to be coaxed into running her events by Bruins assistant track and field coach Cantrese Pierce.
She didn't — and hasn't — quit. Francena, a 2010 Hampton University grad, is going to London to compete in the 2012 Olympics in the 400 meters and 4x400 relay for Team USA.
She'll be joined in London by three other Olympians with Peninsula ties — U.S. rifle coach and Hampton native Maj. Dave Johnson, 400-meter hurdler and Hampton High graduate T'Erea Brown, and 100-meter hurdler and HU product Kellie Wells.
As Francena prepares for her Olympic events, which start Aug. 3, the mark has changed from less than 60 seconds to 50.06 seconds. And she still remembers her godmother's words from high school.
After 23 years of adversity, Francena is prepared for those 50 seconds.
On an overcast Tuesday morning in July, the first part of Francena's training session with Hampton University director of track and field Maurice Pierce, her godfather, is running 300 meters in under 38 seconds. She gets into a three-point stance at the sound of Maurice's whistle and takes off on his cue.
Every 10 seconds, he blows a whistle so she knows her pace. Maurice doesn't like what he sees in the first 100 meters.
"She was holding her left arm too stiff instead of just letting it relax," he said. "If it's too stiff, you have to do too much work on the right side of the body."
When Francena was growing up, Gloria McCorory remembers her daughter constantly running up and down the street. Francena loved games like "Red Light, Green Light" or "Hide and Go Seek." Francena always wanted to be "it" because she was the fastest and could catch everyone.
The McCororys — Francena and her six siblings — grew up in California, but Francena said they moved to Hampton around the time she was six when Gloria left Francena's father. Though Francena said life was better in Hampton, Gloria was a single mother with seven mouths to feed.
"She definitely worked a lot just trying to make sure we had the necessities," Francena said. "We always tell her that we appreciate it because she could've taken the easy way out and gave us all away or put us in a foster home."
When she was in seventh grade at Davis Middle School, Francena developed an instant connection with Cantrese, then her gym teacher. Cantrese, who was the junior varsity track coach at the time, encouraged Francena to run.
When Francena started at Bethel High, Cantrese moved to assistant track coach at Bethel. When Cantrese married Maurice, who was the women's track coach at Hampton University at the time, Francena was at the wedding.
Before Francena's junior year of high school, Cantrese approached her with an offer that, in retrospect, was a lot of pressure to put on a teenager.
"God bless her soul, Francena wasn't a very conscientious student," Cantrese said. "In the process of trying to encourage her to keep going on the right track, we had been getting closer and closer. It just got to a point where I said to her, 'Would you like to come stay with us?' She said yes very quickly, which surprised me."
With Gloria's blessing — Francena is close to her mother and the Pierces live minutes away — Francena began considering the Pierces family too. She even calls them "Mom" and "Dad."
"It's truly village that has become a family," Cantrese said.
Though Cantrese tried to keep Francena organized, she said Francena made baffling choices. She was considered the top track recruit in the country for her class — she won 14 state titles at Bethel — and was named to the junior Olympic squad. She refused to go, working at Golden Corral for the summer instead.
Francena constantly said she would quit track, but didn't.
"Maybe once," Francena says of wanting to quit. "Actually, I'm lying. I don't ever like to have the 'what if' factor. … I never like to live in the unknown, so I can honestly say I would've pushed it until the very end. If it wasn't meant for me to run, I would have just hung up the towel, but I don't think I wanted to stop."
But Francena wants to stop, hunching over after her 300-meter run while training with Maurice at the Hampton track instead of walking 100 meters to keep the blood flowing and prevent lactic acid from staying in her legs.
Her time is 39 seconds, a second slower than she needs to be. Maurice says she slowed the last five meters.
"She's going to have to make that second up," he says. He notices her hunched over.
"Walk, walk, walk," he yells to her.
People who weren't close to the families assumed Francena was living with Gloria, so agents called the house to persuade Francena to turn professional. Cantrese and Gloria agreed Francena was too young and should go to college.
When it was recruitment time, Francena wasn't interested in talking to coaches from programs like Texas, UCLA and Miami. She would avoid meetings or had to be forced to talk to recruiters.
One night after Francena went to bed, Maurice told his wife he was going to recruit their goddaughter. Cantrese said he was going to have to do it like everyone else, putting on a tie and going to Gloria's house.
"I think it helped our relationship out in the long run because it let me know like, OK, I'm still your father figure, but I'm still professional as well," Francena said. "I think (Cantrese) doing that really helped me to see the difference between the two, and I think it helps our relationship to this day."
When Francena committed to Hampton University to run for the man she considered her father, everyone was stunned she did not go to a "bigger" program.
Her family was proud — she was the first of her siblings to go to college. When Francena enrolled in classes as a psychology major, her grades, which had improved, became the least of her family's worries. She was in a car accident, injuring her left foot. Six months later, she was in another car accident in which her lower back and pelvis were injured. She also had a hamstring injury that kept her off the track.
"It seemed like with everything that happened, she just grew stronger," Cantrese said. Francena won three NCAA championships at HU in 2009 and 2010. "...I don't know if she felt like she had to work harder to get back to where she was before the accident or mishap, but every time, she got better. She's had her share."
Even with steady rain falling at the Hampton track in July, Maurice is making sure Francena has her share of a training day.
At the sound of Maurice's whistle, Francena is reluctantly back in her three-point stance to run 200 meters, this time needing to be around 26 seconds. She starts slowly, but accelerates to make up for the extra second she had the previous 300 meters.
Consistency is Francena's forte. She says she doesn't like change. After she committed to Hampton, the decision began to make sense for Cantrese. Francena was comfortable with Maurice and she would be close to home.
Francena jokes that change is so uncomfortable for her, she won't even change her hairstyle. But after signing with Adidas and turning professional, Francena's life did change.
"When she graduated from college, I was really afraid that was going to be the end of track and field for her," Cantrese said. "I thought she had grown tired of it, so when she said that she wanted to go pro ... That's when I saw something change in her."
Francena began lifting weights every day along with training on the track. In May, she cut back to lifting weights three times a week. After a last run at the track, she moves to the weight room with Maurice for core exercises. She is on a healthy diet, but indulges in Chick-fil-A for breakfast.
Her lifestyle also changed. With Adidas, she says she gets a base salary of $465,000. The contract allows her to drive a BMW and possibly buy a house in the future. She is interested in fashion, too, coming home with a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes from a recent trip to Paris.
The most important thing to her — family — hasn't changed. Francena says she values the ability to offer her siblings and Gloria a security blanket. Those closest to Francena — her family, pastor and training partner — say she is the same person.
Francena's mother and grandmother will be in London along with Francena and the Pierces for the Olympics.
"She's going to always be herself," Gloria said. "She wasn't ever the type to let other people make her different than what she already is. That's her nature — she's going to be the same Francena no matter how big she gets."
After running 200 meters, Francena walks before lining up for the 100 meters. She crosses the finish line in 13 seconds, her target time, though it's slower than race-pace.
"Right now I'm not so worried about how fast, but just being consistent," Maurice says. "... We still want to save some legs."
Francena's race pattern had to change as a pro. She and Maurice don't worry about speed in training because it will naturally come if she puts together the complete race that has eluded her.
She missed the 2008 Beijing Games as a junior at HU, falling out of contention in the Olympic Trials after her first 400-meter run. She anchored the 4x400 relay team to gold in the 2011 world championships.
At the Olympic Trials in June, Francena started too fast in the 400 final, losing steam toward the end and finishing third, which secured her place on the Olympic team. Sanya Richards-Ross was first and is favored in London after a trials time of 49.28. Round 1 of the 400 at the Olympics is Aug. 3.
"Track can be a very mental sport," Francena said. "I kind of worry about myself because if I'm worrying about myself and then worrying about Sanya and then worrying about something else, it can get crazy real fast."
Before every race, she sings a Michael Jackson song or recites her favorite biblical scripture to herself. With that, she goes over what she wants to do in the race, ideally starting strong, relaxing on the backstretch and accelerating to the finish.
In preparing for London, she wants to take a second off her time, and after all of the seconds that brought her to the Olympics, she said she feels confident she can run 400 meters in 49 seconds.
"I think everything worked out in a good way because it kind of made me work harder for it," Francena said. "Now that it's here and now that I'm living it, I'm more appreciative of it because I know where I had to come from."
2012 London Olympics
WHEN: July 25-Aug. 12.
OPENING CEREMONIES: 7:30 p.m. Friday (July 27) on NBC
TV: NBC and its family of networks will broadcast live coverage throughout the games. For a complete listing, go to nbcolympics.com
For complete coverage of the 2012 London Games, including photo galleries, videos and a medal counter, visit dailypress.com/sports/olympics
For a video of Francena McCorory of talking about her Olympic dream, go to dailypress.com/sports/olympics
In Sunday Sports
Hampton native Maj. Dave Johnson — in his fourth Olympic Games — leads the U.S. shooting team.
U.S. Olympians with Hampton Roads ties
• T'Erea Brown (Hampton High), women's track and field. London schedule: 400 hurdles. First heat Aug. 5. Notable: Third in 400 hurdles at trials.
•Debbie Capozzi and Anna Tunnicliffe (Old Dominion), sailing. London schedule: Match racing. Competition starts Aug. 7. Notable: First time match racing is being run for women in Olympics. Tunnicliffe was a gold medalist in 2008 Olympics in Laser Radial class.
Gabby Douglas (Virginia Beach), women's gymnastics. London schedule: Qualifications start July 29. Notable: Won trials to clinch only guaranteed spot on U.S. team.
•Stephanie Free and Caroline Nichols (Virginia Beach), field hockey. London schedule: Competition begins July 29.
• Maj. Dave Johnson (Hampton native), head rifle coach. London schedule: Competition begins July 28. Notable: Making his fourth Olympic appearance (Olympian in 1992, coach in 2004, 2008, 2012).
•Francena McCorory (Bethel High/Hampton University), women's track and field. London schedule: 400 meters and 4x400 relay. First heat Aug. 3. Notable: Third in the 400 meters at trials.
•LaShawn Merritt (Portsmouth), men's track and field. London schedule: 400 meters and 4x400 relay. First heat Aug. 4. Notable: Defending 400-meter Olympic gold medalist.
•Gloria Peek (Norfolk), boxing assistant coach. London schedule: Competition starts July 28. Notable: First woman to coach boxing at Olympics.
•Kellie Wells (Hampton University), women's track and field. London schedule: 100 hurdles. First heat Aug. 6. Notable: Second in 100 hurdles at trials.
The University of Virginia and Virginia Tech also will be represented in London. Brent Metcalf (Virginia Tech), U.S. wrestling/66kg freestyle; Lauren Perdue (U.Va.), swimming; Paige Selenski (U.Va.), U.S. field hockey; Michelle Vittese (U.Va.), U.S. field hockey are among those slated to compete.