Trading it all for a dream

Out of racing for years, Maryland sprinter wins Olympic berth

July 29, 2008|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun reporter

Mechelle Lewis had it all: a dream job on Madison Avenue, a bright future and a social life filled with happy hours.

She left to chase her dream - a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

"My goal was to walk in the parade at the opening ceremony," said Lewis, 27, a sprinter raised in Fort Washington. Mission accomplished. In June, Lewis qualified for the 400-meter relay team in Beijing next month.

The comeback proved daunting. In 2006, Lewis left a promising advertising career in New York to train full time for the Games. It wasn't easy, swapping one fast-track life for another. A one-time All-American at the University of South Carolina, Lewis had not raced at all since 2003.

"For three years, my exercise had consisted mostly of hailing cabs and running after trains," the former account executive said.

She hired a fitness coach who took one look and shook his head.

"Come back after you've had it," he said.

"Had what?" Lewis asked.

"The baby."

"I'm not pregnant, just fat," she said.

She was out of shape and, since quitting her job, strapped for cash. For months, she slept on the floor of a friend's apartment and ate bowls of rice to stretch her budget.

Her early workouts took place in a public park in New York, where Lewis shared the track with skateboarders, dog walkers and women pushing baby strollers.

"It was an obstacle course," she said. "I literally ran into people on more than one occasion.

"One man liked to walk around the track while smoking a cigar. I got, like, really upset and told him it was inappropriate. He just walked off."

Friends witnessed her struggles and shook their heads. At Oxon Hill High in Prince George's County, Lewis had left her mark: homecoming queen, senior class vice president and star athlete. She had set a record in winning the 55-meter dash at the 1998 state Class 4A meet at the Baltimore Armory. But injuries had nagged her in college, and her return to track seemed the stuff of dreams.

"I looked at 'Shell and said, 'Do you know what you're getting back into?' " said her twin, Mikisha Freeman, of Orangeburg, S.C. "People thought she was crazy for leaving her job. I mean, she had her master's degree.

"Everyone had their doubts. But all 'Shell would say was, 'I can't get track out of my mind.' "

Full-time training

Lewis soon moved to Raleigh, N.C., to train year-round with other Olympic aspirants. She ratcheted up her training, doing endless sit-ups, lunges and squats. Five days a week found her in the gym at 8 a.m., lifting weights for two hours or more.

"I couldn't walk for the first week," she said. "It hurt to sneeze. To laugh was painful. The [training] program was really intense. Hurtin' as I felt, I was living on faith alone and thinking, 'Things will work out.'

"Then I sprained a hamstring and had to sit out for four weeks."

Sidelined, she fought the fears of self-doubt.

"I was hurt, I'd quit my job and I had no money," she said. "I thought, 'Where am I? What am I doing here?'

"I'd go to the Baptist church, to pray and to cry."

Once the hamstring healed, Lewis injured her Achilles' tendon. She sought strength from the Bible, reciting passages such as Psalm 18 ("It is God who ... makes my feet like the feet of a deer").

Finally, in January 2007, she was fit enough to enter a local indoor meet in Chapel Hill. Borrowing a friend's uniform, she competed for the first time in four years and won a 60-meter race.

For Lewis, the victory was a godsend.

"Everything came back to me," she said.

More success followed, and by summer she was competing big-time at 100 meters: fifth place in the USA Championships, followed by a silver medal in the Pan Am Games. Nike quickly signed Lewis to a five-figure clothing contract. Other sponsors followed, including Young & Rubicam, the New York advertising agency for which she had worked.

Lewis' efforts had paid off. Literally.

'I was like, 'Wow' "

"I was like, 'Wow,' " she said. "No more hand-me-downs."

At the Olympic trials last month, she ran a personal best (10.97) in the 100 semifinals and placed seventh in the final. Though she failed to qualify in sprints, Lewis earned a berth on the relay team - and a place in the Olympic parade.

There, she said, she will stand on the track alongside Michael Phelps. Or LeBron James. Or Kobe Bryant. Or any big-name athlete who'll be a media magnet during the opening ceremony.

"I'm going to march beside someone who's sure to be on TV so I can be there, too," she said.

To those at her old job, Lewis is already a hero.

"There are posters of Mechelle on every floor of our agency," said Fernando Urruchua, her supervisor at Young & Rubicam. "She's our only Olympian, and we're very proud.

"Her leaving here was bittersweet, but you don't get in the way of someone who has that much fire. She said, 'The Olympics is my dream, and I'm going to go get it.' "

And afterward? Would Lewis return to the corporate world?

Come back or run on?

"We would accept her back any time, with open arms," Urruchua said.

That's one option, Lewis said.

"I really enjoyed what I did at that job, but ..."

A telling pause.

"All that has happened in the past few years tells me to keep running, maybe to 2012, until I can't go anymore," she said. "Then I'd like to work with underprivileged kids and help them reach their potential. I want to be the avenue by which they get exposed to the world.

"If what I've done is possible, then all things are possible."


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