SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Francena McCorory had no idea where she was in relation to Sanya Richards-Ross during the women’s 400-meter final at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
That was by design.
“I run with my eyes closed,” said McCorory, the 2014 world indoor champion. “I know it’s weird, because I have to go around the oval and I have to turn left. But I don’t really feel anyone. I’m just solely concentrating on myself.”
When she opened her eyes at the finish line Saturday, McCorory had run a personal best time of 49.48 seconds to defeat Richards-Ross, the 2012 Olympic champion. Richards-Ross was pleased with her own race, clocking 49.66 seconds, more than a second better than she’s run in finals this season. Both times were the fastest in the world this year.
McCorory, whose previous best was 49.86 seconds last season, is now No. 5 on the all-time U.S. list. She added her first U.S. outdoor title to the indoor crown she won in February. McCorory is also the American record holder indoors (50.54 seconds).
The 25-year-old said she has been closing her eyes since she started running in sixth grade. “It’s just a bad habit that I have,” McCorory said, vowing not to kick it “because it’s working. I’ve run so many ovals, I just know how to do it.”
While she takes tunnel vision to the extreme, she’s not running completely blind. McCorory admits she takes a peek at 150 meters and then again at 300 meters as she rounds the last curve.
“At the 300 mark, I’m like, ‘Yes! I’m almost home,'” McCorory said.
Then she shuts her eyes again, meaning that on Saturday she couldn’t see Richards-Ross two lanes to her left.
“I think it’s crazy,” Richards-Ross said of McCorory closing her eyes, “but it definitely works for her and I think that she ran a phenomenal race today. All credit to her for executing well. And I think she’s going to continue to push me to be great, and that’s what I love. Good competition just brings out the best in all of us, so it’s going to be an exciting next couple of years.”
Although McCorory won an Olympic gold medal as a member of the 4x400-meter relay in London and also was a member of the winning relay at the 2013 IAAF World Outdoor Championships in Moscow, she said capturing the individual world indoor title in March in Sopot, Poland, “broke me into a different avenue. It made me even more hungry as a competitor to come out here and get the U.S. outdoor title.
“I’m just happy to get finished, so I can eat some cookies.”
Richards-Ross, who has struggled with a foot injury, came into the meet having trained for only three months. “This race just raised my confidence,” she said. “To run 49.6 today just means that I’m going to have a great season this year.”
Richards-Ross said her foot feels good, but is not all the way back to normal.
“I still have some pain, but I’m getting there,” she said. “In the semis I ran my curve well, but today I knew I had to hit it even harder, and come off of that 150 as fast as I could. I want to say I held back just a little bit, not being 100 percent sure how my body would handle it. But I felt good, so next race I can go a little bit harder.”
Richards-Ross was disappointed to find out a couple of weeks ago that her reality show, “Sanya’s Glam & Gold,” would not be picked up by WE tv for a second season.
“It did really well, so it was surprising,” she said. “I may shop it around to some other networks and see what happens. I loved the experience. We had a great camera crew, so it made it very easy for us. I felt like we got closer as a family when we did it, so it was really great.”
As McCorory finds more success, she is also getting her story out. She grew up as the middle child among eight children in Hampton, Virginia. “They put me in track to keep me out of trouble,” she said. “I was good at it, so I kept with it.”
But early in her college career at Hampton, McCorory was derailed by car accidents and injuries that caused her to sit out seasons.
“Now I feel like I’m more mature,” she said. “The younger me was just kind of going through the loops a little bit. If I didn’t feel like running, I wouldn’t run, but now that I’m more grown and mature, I’m actually starting to fall in love with track.
“I know that might sound crazy because I’ve been doing it for so long. So it’s just kind of a different spirit and a different feel.”
McCorory said she fell in love with the 400 by learning it through repetition.
“So now that I’m starting to learn it, I’m having more fun with it and it’s getting easier,” she said.
McCorory’s plan for life after track is also out of the ordinary: She wants to become a mortician and own several funeral parlors.
“When this career is over, I want to work a job where I don’t have to deal with complaining customers,” MCorory said. “And being a mortician, the customers don’t talk back to me. They can’t complain, so it’s all good.”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.