Staff Photos by Jason Arthurs Southeast Raleigh senior strides toward her goal of Beijing 2008 with a strict training regimen
Edward G. Robinson III, Staff WriterGabby Mayo spent 1 minute, 11 seconds competing on the historic New York Armory track during the National Scholastic Indoor Championship in March. But it took close to 50 hours of practice for the Southeast Raleigh High School sprinter to prepare for those seven races, run over three days. She toiled for four weeks, training six days a week, muscling around the St. Augustine's College track. Lifting, squatting and pulling weights. Sit-ups, push-ups and stretches.
"I feel like my life is just track," Mayo said one sunny April afternoon while driving her blue Honda Accord toward Cary for a weekly chiropractic appointment.
A year ago, life was simpler for the 18-year-old senior track star. Always slim and fit, she seldom visited the weight room, and she existed on fast food. Still, she ran some of the nation's fastest junior times in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.
These days, with the 2008 Beijing Olympics as her goal, Mayo is occupied with the task of building a stronger body. And she says she wants to do it the right way, without any help from steroids or performance enhancers.
"I took the drug test to prove it," she said.
For Mayo to race at a world-class level, her coaches had to overhaul her training regimen and eating habits. Her talent alone no longer would suffice.
In track and field, an athlete's speed is a byproduct of conditioning. A sprinter might run in several events over a course of hours or days. How fast athletes recover from one race to the next is determined by how fit they are and if they have properly nourished their muscles.
Mayo has started to employ a variety of training methods in hopes that better conditioning will result in faster times.
For the past eight months, she has sculpted willowy limbs with track workouts and weight training. Along the way, she's added an aquatics routine and taken preventative health measures such as chiropractic care and monthly massages to protect her 126-pound frame.
Even though the workouts are sometimes filled with laughter, the expectation is for Mayo to learn how to maintain her body like a professional. In a short time, she's gotten stronger, but she has a long way to go. Her coaches hope she takes good habits -- like drinking more water to help her muscles absorb nutrients and expel wastes -- with her to Texas A&M in the fall.
Mayo says she "will never give up french fries" but has begrudgingly accepted a new dietary plan full of fruits, vegetables, proteins and multivitamins.
"That's my motivation," she said. "I'm doing all this work, and I know it's going to pay off at the end."
Building Gabby's body
Racing puts Mayo in a delightful mood. Weightlifting, however, hurts.
With a forced smile, she tolerates squats and cleans, but lunges are annoying. She tries to avoid them. Her private coach, Stephen Hayes, will not let her.
One evening in November, Hayes ignored her pleas to skip them. Carrying a weight in both hands, Mayo stepped forward with her right leg into a deep knee bend. Arms shaking with each bend, she repeated the up-and-back circuit three times.
"My legs feel so heavy," Mayo said. "It makes me sad."
Treshell Mayo-Herndon, her aunt and coach, is to blame.
Before this season, Mayo had not lifted weights for any sustained period. Though it was part of her high school program, it wasn't her favorite part. She appeared muscular, but her arms were "hollow," lacking true strength.
She fared well on the international stage in August, anchoring the U.S. junior national 4x100 relay team to a gold medal in China.
But in order for Mayo to consistently compete against national, collegiate and world-class sprinters, her aunt, a former college sprinter, knew Mayo had "to have the power behind those movements."
They hired Hayes, who attended their church and worked as a strength and conditioning trainer for professional track athletes in the Triangle.
Together, they decided Mayo would target specific areas such as her hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, abdomen, shoulders, biceps, triceps, chest and back. She would need to build those muscles with quick-moving power exercises that simulated her movements during a race.
Initial strength tests confirmed Mayo was "weak," Hayes said. "... It was surprising, as fast as she runs, her strength level didn't match up."
Mayo used to struggle to lift 45-pound weight bars. Now she squats 135 to 180 pounds. Her first day in the gym with Hayes, back in October, was painful.
"I was sore for like a whole week from that one day," she said. "I couldn't walk up the steps."
Since American women started competing in modern track and field in the late 19th century, there have been dramatic developments in training.
Dr. Mark Dyreson, an associate professor at Penn State, is a sports historian who in 1998 wrote the book "Making the American Team: Sports, Culture and the Olympic Experience."
He said many in society believed women were too delicate to exert themselves.
"Most women in that era ... did not train year-round," he said.
Only in the past 30 years, Dyreson said, have female track athletes trained as rigorously as men. In the 1970s, Title IX legislation created more collegiate opportunities for women, and more high school programs started around the country. AAU competition, combined with prize-based U.S. and European professional circuits, provided reasons for women to elevate their conditioning.
"The difference is weight training," Dyreson said. "Now they're very sophisticated. Just like in male sports, targeting certain areas of the body, particular kinds of lifting."
This is clear with Gabby Mayo's routine. She does not lift heavy weights as a body builder might but concentrates in short sessions three days a week on plyometric exercises -- box jumps and other quick movements that improve explosive strength necessary for sprints and hurdles. She also does Olympic lifts, mostly squats and cleans, that build strength where she needs it as a sprinter.
Though legs and arms are obvious target areas, Mayo's coaches also have placed emphasis on building stronger abdominal muscles.
Hayes said strong abs connect the upper and lower body and force them to work in sync. He uses the example of a car with a busted axle. It can be driven, but at top speeds, it drifts and slows.
"Her core is her stabilizer," Hayes added.
So he mandates 1,000 sit-ups a day. Mayo has reached 500 thus far. When she remembers. Sometimes her mother, Sandra, reminds her before bed.
"I'm still working on that," Mayo said.
Water, water everywhere
Last year, Mayo ended her eight-month track season in August with the junior world championships in China. It had been a successful yet draining campaign.
For this year, she started training in October, again pounding ankles, shins and knees over hard, unforgiving track surfaces. Practice lasted two hours some days. She ran first to build endurance. Then speed intervals. Run. Rest. Run.
Team Mayo worried that too much running could cause injuries. Her shins and ankles were already sore. They discovered low-impact pool workouts as an alternative, where Mayo could get much-needed cardiovascular training while sparing her legs.
Mayo, a novice swimmer, has splashed around at the Banks D. Kerr Family YMCA near Wakefield High for the past two months.
Dressed in a two-piece brown and teal suit, she waded into 9-foot-deep water one day last month. The smell of chlorine cut through the humid air as cute kids in goggles belly-flopped around her.
Her objective: simulate running for 30 seconds without touching the bottom. Head above the water, she scissor-kicked toward the shallow end.
"Your feet are going back too far," Mayo-Herndon shouted.
"It's the water, not me," Mayo replied.
"No, it's you."
North Carolina coach Dennis Craddock has trained high school and collegiate athletes for more than 25 years. He said overtraining is common. He teaches rest and recovery.
"You can't go all out every day, you just won't last," he said. "Your muscles and tendons and ligaments can only stand so much stress to come back the next day."
Speed sans drugs
Every day, Mayo works to develop the body of a champion.
She does not, however, want that body to look masculine and too muscular, like her older brother Brandon.
That, she said, is not cute in a tank top.
Her father, Daryle McNair, said: "I think she'll like the muscles if they're going to help her win."
Yet winning in an irreproachable fashion means more.
That's why it was disturbing for Mayo to read a discussion about herself on trackshark.com in August that insinuated steriod use. This slight came after Mayo, little known at the time, performed astonishingly well at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Indianapolis.
"They weren't expecting what I did," she said. "There has to be a reason why."
The thread of computer messages failed to mention that athletes competing in national championships and other USATF or IAAF-sanctioned events are subject to on-site drug testing.
Last year, Mayo was tested at two U.S. events for use of performance enhancements, according to letters issued to her by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Each time her test came back negative.
Mayo does not want anyone to connect her talent and training with cheating.
"I want to be a good example for other athletes and people coming behind me," she said. "You can be fast without doing the unnecessary. Without doing drugs, any kind of drugs."
As she advances, more detractors will surface, spurred on by the ominous clouds hanging over professional track and field. In recent years, the sport has been decimated by drug scandals.
"If anybody runs fast, people speculate," Hayes said. "That's just this sport."
Most high school track athletes are not tested. But New Jersey became the first state to allow random testing in high schools for performance enhancers, starting in the 2006-07 school year.
The N.C. High School Athletic Association does not require student-athletes to take drug tests.
Mayo, however, must meet the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency standards when she competes this summer at the AT&T USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships on June 20-24 in Indianapolis.
Sandra Mayo keeps the USADA's list of banned substances on the refrigerator of their North Raleigh home. She takes it to medical appointments, and any prescribed medication must meet strict scrutiny.
"We have to be on point as far as what gets to her," Sandra Mayo said. "We're more cautious. ... It's really important what goes into her body. Really important."
Meanwhile, her daughter sports a black T-shirt she picked up in New York. Across the front it reads, "Shut Up & Run." A reminder that, though she might not always enjoy it, there are long hours of practice ahead.
"You have got to practice if you want to be on the podium," she said. "That's the only way you can get there."