Just seconds before Aldrich Bailey crossed the finish line to win the 400-meter race at the Texas Region 1-5A meet, he fell victim to one of his worst habits -- he looked up at the scoreboard for his time.
He knew immediately that was a bad idea.
"That's a bad habit of mine," he said. "Sometimes you can even see pictures of me at the end of races looking up. It's something I have to stop doing."
It didn't cost the Timberview (Arlington, Texas) senior a victory. Not by a long shot. In fact, Bailey won the meet by more than two full seconds -- an eternity in a race as short as the 400. His time of 45.19 seconds set a record by the standards of the National Federation of State High School Associations (which counts only in-season meets) and was sixth-fastest overall.
No matter how you slice it, Bailey's time was remarkable, and he knew it. In fact, he knew it was so good that he had to sneak a peek at the clock. He was shooting to break the 45-second mark, and he had to see whether he had done it.
"The clock said 44.9, so I thought I did it," he said. "Then 45.1 popped up. I mean, I was happy because it was a [personal record], and it was a national record, and everyone was going crazy. But if I wouldn't have slowed down, we're talking a 45 flat or a 44.9. So yeah, that's a bad habit."
It's a habit, however, that can be cracked. Should he fix it, Bailey has a chance to follow in a long line of outstanding sprinters from northern Texas such as 400-meter world-record holder and four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson and three-time Olympic gold medalist Jeremy Wariner. The time of 45.19 easily qualified him for the U.S. Olympic team trials -- which begin June 21 in Eugene, Ore. -- and puts him in the running to qualify for the London Games.
What's remarkable about Bailey's success is that it might never have happened were it not for a football injury that left him with a broken leg in the sixth grade. Bailey was a football player first and foremost, playing as often as he could in grade school. Only when a cousin noted his impressive speed did he consider going out for the track team. But football was his first love. Until the break.
"Once I did that, I knew I was done," Bailey said.
Football's loss has been track's gain. Once Bailey returned to full strength -- a process he says took until his sophomore year of high school -- he started to display promising speed.
"I was surprised by how quickly he moved and how he was gaining on people even in 100-meter races," said Timberview coach Rayford Ross. "But he was trying to understand the 400, and his strategy was off."
In a short sprint like the 100 or 200, the body can maintain a top speed throughout, and there's no time to think. There's no real strategy to those races. The fastest and most technically sound competitor wins.
But the 400 is a brutal race. In the 400, there's a constant battle of speed, strength, endurance, intelligence and willpower. Bailey's coaches, Ross and Mike Hart, talk about finding the right balance -- figuring out how to run the first half of the race correctly so there's enough stamina left to make the final turn and finish strong.
Then there's the mechanics, which were a struggle early but are now a major asset for Bailey.
"He's tall and lean," said Hart, Bailey's personal coach. "When we first started, he had really bad running mechanics. But we've straightened him out to get more upright. I'm a firm believer in technique, and once we fixed his technique, that's when things started clicking for him. His lean build and work ethic have allowed him to do what he's done to this point."
Bailey is only starting to figure all of it out.
"I'm still learning," he said. "I haven't mastered it yet."
Teaching it has been a point of contention at times. Bailey came into his junior season with high expectations. He was fast, and he knew it. But Ross wasn't sold despite his pupil's obvious talent. Bailey had a different speed for practices than he had for races.
"I told him I had a goal to run 44 by the end of that summer," Bailey said. "And [Coach Ross] told me that's never going to happen until I learn to run the whole thing."
So Bailey trained harder, and it all started to come together. Ross and Hart helped; Ross with strategy, Hart with mechanics. By the time the region meet rolled around, Bailey was ready to make a statement. Except for his miscue at the end, the statement was made. Not long after, Bailey also took down the Texas 5A state title.
The high school season is over, but there are plenty more chances to show the rest of the country that he's good enough to run with anyone. With the trials less than two weeks away, Bailey is far from satisfied with his accomplishments for the year.
"His ceiling this year? It's kind of hard to say," Ross said. "If he ran 44.5 or 44.4, I think that's an attainable goal."
That likely would be more than enough to reach the finals at the trials. In 2008, only four sprinters broke the 45-second mark at any point during the event. Even by equaling his personal best of 45.19, Bailey would have placed fifth at the 2008 trials.
"I think he's just as good as any college athlete out there," Hart said. "I think he can make it to the finals if he doesn't get distracted."
Of course, there's one other bad habit Bailey will have to break before the trials -- his love for Krispy Kreme donuts. The soccer team at Timberview was selling them by the box this spring as part of a fundraiser, and Bailey put away nearly a dozen on his own during class one day.
"I ran it all off," he said, laughing. "But the professionals eat right and prepare well for races. I have been watching what I'm eating lately."
He'll have to be careful. Krispy Kreme is very popular in London, too.