Regina George runs her own way

LONDON — Sprinting down the hallways for track practice at St. Gregory High School on the North Side, of all the unlikely places, Regina George helped open a door to the 2012 Olympics.

The Catholic school, enrollment 98, had no outdoor track or track coach. Its track team consisted of Regina and younger sister Phyllis.

When Regina transferred from Gordon Tech to St. Gregory before her sophomore year to be closer to the family's Rogers Park home, she noticed one difference immediately: shorter hallways meant limiting the length of sprints.

Nothing confined Regina's potential.

"Sure, St. Gregory didn't have a track but they did everything they could to help me," Regina said Wednesday sitting at a cafe in the Olympic Village. "I loved it there. That was such a good experience for me."

So is this, representing Nigeria at the Olympics as a 21-year-old considered one of her sport's rising stars. And what a rapid rise it has been for the daughter of elite runners — father Phillips George and mother Florencia Chilberry met on the track team at Wichita State.

Just three years after winning an IHSA Class A title in the 200-meter run, Regina overcame anxiety to win a qualifying heat in the 400 on Friday at Olympic Stadium with a time of 51.24. With long braids that bounce when she runs and each fingernail painted a different bright color, Regina fits comfortably into a track culture in which the best enjoy the attention. Yet before her first Olympic race, Regina looked for a place to hide.

"Mind-blowing," said Regina, who will be a senior at Arkansas. "I tried telling myself it would be like another big track meet but I never saw stands so full. I think the nerves helped. Seeing 80,000 people just took my breath."

Regina felt more relaxed for the semifinal a day later but fell just short, missing the final field of eight by .37 seconds with a time of 51.35. Another memory awaits Friday in the 1,600 relay but, regardless, Regina will return home having made a statement with the Olympics' 11th-fastest time in the 400 — behind 10 runners who all are older.

"People better take notice because she will be back in Rio (in 2016)," Arkansas coach Lance Harter said. "She's still a neophyte. What she did was unbelievable."

Since the day his daughter ran a mile in 6:13 as a 9-year-old running a Chicago Park District meet, Phillips always believed stardom was possible. The family is full of athletes — son Patrick started at cornerback for Northern Illinois and Phyllis plays soccer at Arkansas. But before his oldest daughter flourished, Phillips knew Regina needed structure that longtime respected coach Michael Brazier could provide during regular workouts at Proviso West and with the Chicago Zephyrs track club.

"It was less about coaching and more about shepherding," Phillips said. "She needed discipline."

It complemented his own brand at home, where Phillips coached his daughters' soccer teams and raised them never to set boundaries. A dual citizen of Nigeria and Sierra Leone, Phillips experienced firsthand how big sports can make the world when he came to America on an athletic scholarship.

"Growing up, he always told me I could do it but expected big things," Regina said. "In our relationship, he was coach/dad."

It was Phillips' childhood relationship with Nigerian coach Gabriel Okon that hastened the Olympic berth. In 2010, Regina was running for the U.S. at a world juniors meet when she saw Okon and reminded him of her Nigerian descent. National team officials from Venezuela, where Regina's mother has citizenship, inquired too, but the Nigerian connection was tighter.

"Coach Okon said, 'That's my brother,' " Regina said. "So he called my dad and I thought it would be exciting to represent my dad's country."

When Regina won Nigeria's national meet on her first trip to Lagos and saw tears in the eyes of the grandma she was named after, the feeling of pride surpassed expectations.

Does it feel odd to be running against Team USA instead of for it?

"In track, you're on the line by yourself," Regina answered. "If it was a team thing like soccer it'd be more emotional to switch."

The World Anti-Doping Agency put Regina's emotions through the wringer in early July, banning her from the Games for a positive drug test. Days later, the panel reversed the decision after documentation came through proving the banned substance was a prescription drug Arkansas previously had approved by the NCAA.

"I never worried," Regina said. "I knew I would be here."

As Regina's unorthodox path through the hallways of St. Gregory to the Olympic running lanes of London proves, some things are inevitable.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
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