BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Winston-Salem State head coach Inez Turner is one of those folks who puts people to ease when they meet.
First, she’s got an easy smile and sincere laugh. Then, there’s her accent … her Jamaican accent. Finally, somebody mentions some sort of accomplishment and Turner seems sincerely interested in knowing all about it.
All this is from a woman who appeared in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games for Jamaica, one of the best middle-distance runners from the country. For all her own accomplishments on the track, her life is now about developing talent in others.
Winston-Salem State runners Tajanel McNeill and Raven Covington are slated to compete in the triple jump and 60-meter dash, respectively.
“I truly believe God helped me to instill in these athletes what helped me get to the next level, and that’s the right attitude,” Turner said. “From the right attitude comes the right big heart. This sport is a heart thing.”
It’s a familiar thing for Winston-Salem State student-athletes to hear Turner’s voice carrying above the din of a competition and in the quietness of a practice session, when there’s nobody else around. What she says is simple and to the point.
Come on ladies, big heart!
“When they hear that, they know, ‘You know what? It’s the heart that’s going to do this. Once I push myself, it’s going to come,’” Turner added. “It’s a tough sport, but my track-and-field life prepares me for the real world.
“In track and field, it’s about blood, sweat and tears. In the real life, it’s about blood, sweat and tears. You cry sometimes. You sweat sometimes. You smile sometimes. Once you can pull through, you’re going to be alright.”
As friendly and outgoing as Turner appears to be, she’s no pushover. She expects … no. She demands that her student-athletes work hard.
“Every athlete is different,” she said. “One things I know, the same language that all athletes need to have is discipline. Of course, it’s going to frustrate me sometimes, but I have to hold my peace and know how to be very strategic.
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“In some, you see this talent. But sometimes, you’ll see them pulling off like, ‘OK… I’m not going to do this.’ You have to be very strategic in letting them know the talent is there, but it’s not going to show if you don’t put the work in.”
Just the mere mention of the work ethic Turner instills in her charges bring a grin to both McNeill and Covington’s faces, if not outright laughter. It’s not a mocking snicker. Far from it. It’s one borne out of respect, the kind that comes from working the way they have together.
“To me, she’s a blessing and it’s motivating,” McNeill said. “Coming out of high school, you just have regular coaches that maybe have done the sport or are familiar with it. But to have somebody who has been at such a top level, that motivates you. She’s very sweet, very energetic.”
“She makes me want to work hard,” Covington added. “Whenever I feel like I can’t do it and everyone on the team feels like giving up, she’s always there. If you don’t believe in yourself, she believes in you. She pushes you to your highest potential. It’s always great to have a coach like that.”
Turner can be creative. She’s found places all over the Winston-Salem State campus to train. If it’s not a hill, it’s a trail. If it’s not a trail, it’s a hill. If it’s neither of those, it’s a NASCAR racetrack that’s just down the street.
The team runs steps at Bowman Gray Stadium, the Madhouse itself, one of the most famous weekly short tracks in NASCAR history that also doubles as the home of Winston-Salem State’s football team.
Turner isn’t the only one putting together tough training routines, either. She credits assistant coaches Clifton Huff and Austin Davis with getting the track team up to … well … speed.
“My jump coach, Coach Davis, comes up with the craziest things,” said McNeill of this recent University of North Carolina graduate. “He’s experimenting with us. He’ll have us jumping over hurdles, then going into straight running, then jumping on a mat, and after getting on the mat, you’ve got to do pushups.”
That’s tiring just to think about, but you know what? You’ve got to have it. You’ve got to have big heart.