Jack Pierce knows desperation. He saw it every night while working the graveyard shift at Harrah's Marina in Atlantic City, N.J. He cleaned the slot machines, pulling cigarette butts, gum wrappers and the occasional forgotten quarter from the silver trays.
He watched people toss away their last coins in final bids to hit a jackpot. Helped losers get cab rides home. Dried the tears of the broke and the lonely.
"At first, you'd think, 'How could people lose all their money?' " Pierce said. "But you realize everyone believes they're going to make a million dollars."
Five years after quitting his casino job to resume running and training full-time in the 110-meter hurdles, Pierce will tell you that he was really the biggest gambler of them all. The former Morgan State sprinter wasn't laying out money -- just a lot of time and a lot of hope.
Pierce had this dream of winning an Olympic gold medal in an event overcrowded with superstars. He was trying to summon the courage to beat two-time Olympic champion Roger Kingdom and three-time world champion Greg Foster.
Finally, last month, he surged through the heat and humidity of New Orleans and the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. Pierce bolted past Kingdom and Foster, came rolling over the fifth hurdle with the lead and wouldn't let go of the race, crossing the finish line first for the most important triumph of his career.
Out of the shadows
"I've been running in these older guys' shadows for so long," Pierce said. "Now, I'm finally the one on top."
At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Pierce is the man to beat in the 110 hurdles. After nearly a decade of disappointments, he is, at 29, suddenly an overnight star trying to handle the stress of being labeled a favorite.
"I can't count anyone out," Pierce said. "The Olympic trials was just one race. The Olympics are just another race."
But, for Pierce, the Olympics represent the end of a long struggle for recognition since leaving Morgan State 18 credits shy of a degree in 1985. Long gone are the nights when he would work the 6-to-2 shift in the casino and squeeze in a training session in the afternoon. Gone, too, are the days when he was self-trained, running alone on a high school track in Marlton, N.J., while his girlfriend videotaped the practices.
Now, he has a coach, an agent and a plan to win a medal.
"I always wanted to taste victory," he said. "Every time I'd get down, I'd do something to pick myself up, run faster or win a meet."
He races in an event that some have called "track's dirty trick." Sprinters have to leapfrog hurdles that come every 10 meters, every three strides. It is an unnatural skill that takes years to perfect.
"Hurdlers have to be very flexible," said Pierce, who, at 6 feet 1, 160 pounds, has the perfect blend of suppleness, speed and strength for the hurdles.
"You stride, step up and step over," he said. "My philosophy is that I'm a sprinter who has to climb over 10 barriers. It's something you never master."
Pierce began hurdling as a high school junior in Woodbury, N.J., after his baseball career ended with a thumb injury. He took his talents south to Morgan State in 1981 and achieved a small bit of fame at the 1984 Penn Relays, where he was named MVP after racing in the 4 x 100, 4 x 200, shuttle hurdle and mile relays and the open hurdles.
A boost from a coach
Without a degree or a sponsor, Pierce landed a job in the casino. He raced in indoor meets in the United States, and then went overseas, pocketing small guarantees to keep his career afloat. It wasn't until two years ago that he made a great leap forward after hooking up with a coach, Norman Tate, and training full time at a high school across the street from a car dealership in suburban Philadelphia.
Tate loaded down Pierce with weights -- five pounds around the ankles, a 35-pound vest. He even used a bungee cord to turn Pierce into a human yo-yo who was pulled up and over hurdles.
"You have to keep telling Jack that he's the best," said Tate. "Some athletes believe that. Others don't. But if I say Jack is ready, then he's ready."
Pierce's breakthrough occurred at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo, when he raced Foster stride for stride to the wire and finished second on a photo. After examining the photo and watching the race 100 times -- 200 if you count the slow-motion replay of the finish -- Pierce remained convinced he had won.
"By looking at that photo finish, I want everyone to know I didn't lose that race," Pierce said. "But I keep it folded up. That's past tense now."
At the Olympic trials, the only photo that mattered was the one of Pierce waving an American flag while taking a victory lap.
Tate coaxed Pierce through the first three rounds of the trials, telling him not to worry, that "he hadn't even turned on his afterburners." But Pierce was running out of fuel even before the final.
"I thought I was getting an ulcer," Pierce said. "I couldn't eat anything. I was up all night before.