Monday, May 21, 2007

Hayes, at 5-foot-5, is a real big shot

Thursday morning, 17-year-old Kamorean Hayes went to school in bell bottom jeans and two shirts, a white one pulled over top of a red one. Her tightly braided hair, dyed fire bright red, was pulled back.

She looked like any other teenager walking the halls at Harding High.

But Kamorean (pronounced Cameron) isn't ordinary. She is one of the best high school track and field athletes ever. In Charlotte. In California. Anywhere.

Most girls cannot toss an 8-pound steel ball nearly 53 feet, like Hayes can in the shot put.

Think about it this way: Hayes' best indoor throw this season was 52 feet, 6 1/2 inches. That's the third-best throw ever by a high school girl, and it would've landed her 10th at the NCAA Division I Indoor Championships in March at Arkansas.

Or think about it this way: No female under 20 years old in America has thrown farther than Hayes has this year.

And Hayes is maybe 5-foot-5 and 150 pounds. That makes her 7 inches shorter and 60 pounds smaller than most elite-level performers in her events. She's like Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash trying to play power forward in the NBA.

"She's a total exception," says Harding girls' coach Eric Streeter. "Every meet we go to, people come to see her throw. They come near the pit and go, `Where's Kamorean?' And when she steps in, they're like, `That's her?' You're like, `No, that's the shot put legend?' But it usually takes one throw for people to realize what she's about."

Goes for 4th N.C. title today

Hayes, who has signed with Florida State, is a three-time indoor and two-time outdoor high school national champion in the shot put. She'll go for a third straight outdoor national title in June.She's won three straight N.C. 4A outdoor championships and will go for No. 4 today at the state finals at N.C. A&T in Greensboro. She'll also go for a fourth straight in the discus. No one's ever won both four straight years.

It will be a major upset if she loses in either today. Her best shot put is 8 feet longer than the next-best competitor in North Carolina, and her best discus toss is 13 feet better than the second best.

`Dear Mama' gets her going

Before each event, Hayes has a special routine. She calls it getting into the zone. She doesn't talk to anyone all day. She meditates, thinking only of her event. Her iPod is on repeat, playing late rapper Tupac Shakur's "Dear Mama."

The song is about a mother sacrificing for her kids, trying to teach them the right way. It resonates with Hayes.

Her mother, 35-year-old Minnie McPherson, was a college-recruited shot putter at Myers Park High in the late '80s, but she gave up her dream when she got pregnant with Hayes at 18. Hayes' father, Jeff Strange, then a 6-1, 250-pound football player at Myers Park, went onto play for Florida A&M.

Hayes said her mother, who years later married Chris McPherson, never stopped sacrificing for her.

"My mom is my best friend," she said. "If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be where I am. When I hear Tupac sing that song, it's almost like I can hear her voice. A lot of what I do is to make her proud."

Shift from sprints to shot put

McPherson was the one who told Hayes to stop sprinting for AAU teams when she was 12 with shin splits and a bad hamstring pull. McPherson suggested trying the shot. Hayes threw it 29 feet on her first try. McPherson's best ever in high school was 36 feet. As soon as she saw that toss, McPherson knew she had something special."But Kamorean was like, `Mama, this is really tough. I don't know if I could do it,' " McPherson remembers. "I told her I'm old and haven't picked up a shot put in years, and you're going to let your mama beat you?' I stepped in and threw and she passed me pretty quick. But I knew if you give her a challenge, you might as well step back real fast. She's going to wow you."

Hayes had always been strong. Her mother brags about how she did pull-ups, literally, on a bar in her crib at 6 months and was doing pushups with her knees off the ground at 4.

She said, "I used to tell people, `Look at my daughter, she has a six pack.' "

At 12, the year she started with the shot put, Hayes also started powerlifting. She dead-lifted 318 pounds at an event in Nebraska.

Two years later, by the end of her freshman year at Harding, she won state titles in the shot put and discus, and shattered N.C. shot put records during the indoor season by 2 feet (45-5) and outdoor season by nearly 3 (48-9 1/2). She also had the best discus throw by 5 feet (150-7).

Since then, she's been incredibly consistent in the shot put, her best event:

She was second in the nation her freshman year indoors and seventh outdoors.

She won national titles, indoors and outdoors, as a sophomore.

She took bronze at the World Youth Championships as a sophomore in Morocco, a country of 33 million in northern Africa.

As a junior, she won the USA Track and Field Junior Nationals, beating two college freshmen in the final. That sent her to the World Juniors last August, where she finished 16th.

Practicing blindfolded

It's Monday night, dark, and Hayes is on the track at Piedmont Middle School. She's wearing a blindfold.

Her mother, like always, is in her car, shining her lights so everyone can see.

"You take away the eyes and the other senses become better," Hayes' private coach, Shelton Harrison, explains.

Hayes practices until 10 and lifts weights until 11. Most days she'll practice and work out for five hours.

The rewards have been trips to compete in Paris and Puerto Rico and China. But Hayes has missed things such as movie night and dances.

"My mom tries to make sure I have some fun," Hayes said, "but this is well worth it for my future. I think that it's a blessing, really."

`Someone special'

Her friends at school call Hayes "silly" and "fun loving." Her high school coach says she's a joy to be around.McPherson said she raised her daughter to be those things, but so much more.

She spelled her daughter's name differently, so no one else would have it.

"I knew she'd be someone special," McPherson said.

`She'll be an All-American'

Florida State throws coach Harlis Meadors, a Monroe Sun Valley High graduate, believes Hayes could be a key piece in the puzzle that helps the Seminoles grab a women's national championship to match the one their men won last year.

"I predict she'll be an All-American for us in the near future," he said.

Hayes wants to make the 2008 Olympics. Meadors figures she'll have to improve her throws 7 or 8 feet to qualify. And he says her size doesn't matter.

A lot of people close to Hayes would agree with him.

"At (Southern Cal) or UCLA, they have prototypical 6-3 or 6-4 girls who weigh 250, so they were skeptical when they saw Kamorean," said Streeter, the Harding coach.

"But if you give Kamorean a challenge, she'll rise to it, and personally, I think this is that kid, that first smaller kid to make it. I think we'll be looking at the Olympics on TV one day and saying, `Oh my God, who is that little girl throwing for the United States?' Then she'll throw and your jaw will drop."

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