A 16-year-old Jalen Robinson-McCoy sat on a table in a tattoo shop off Central Ave., unfazed as the artist drilled a baseball-sized cross into his right shoulder, the words “Only God can Judge Me” scrawled in dark ink overtop of it. He didn't squirm or flinch, he remembers. He remained silent and unmoving — tough.
It's that same toughness, that no-pain-no-gain attitude that has made the Charles H. Flowers High senior the state's top 800-meter runner.
“He's a competitor. He's going to fight. He's going to try until the end,” Flowers coach Carl Rose said. “He's not afraid to go out hard with a pace he's not comfortable with. He shows toughness to go out with a pace he might not be comfortable with but he knows he has to trust his training to get him all the way through the race and continue to do that.”
In 2011 Rose heard that he was going to be getting a talented transfer from DeMatha Catholic High School. He had heard of Robinson-McCoy, a lean middle distance runner who had broken the two-minute barrier in the 800 before reaching upper-classman status. But Rose wouldn't let the young speedster's reputation precede him.
“I don't take anything positive or negative when I hear that a transfer is coming,” Rose said. “If I hear that a U.S. national junior is coming in, I say, 'I'll see him when I see him.'”
However, even Rose knew that if an athlete excelled with the DeMatha program, he likely would succeed with his. When Rose coached at DuVal from 1994-2000, the two high schools shared the same track, often mirroring each other's training programs.
But Robinson-McCoy was ineligible for the 2010-11 season, forced to disappear into the books and under the radar. Meanwhile, his former teammate at DeMatha and good friend, Onyx Johnson, was dropping his times lower and lower while Robinson-McCoy worked on raising his grades.
“He worked hard,” said Rose of Robinson-McCoy's fight to regain eligibility at Flowers. “He hit the books hard.”
By the time Robinson-McCoy earned his eligibility back he had just one indoor and one outdoor season left in his short stint as a Jaguar. Johnson, who followed his former teammate's footsteps to Flowers for his senior year, had dropped his time all the way down to 1 minute, 54.04 seconds at DeMatha.
Finally reunited with his old workout buddy again this past winter, Robinson-McCoy watched his times steadily drop: first to 2 minutes, 4 seconds, and then even further to 2:00.65.
But as the end of the indoor season approached, Johnson was forced to retreat to the hospital with an irregular heartbeat, leaving Robinson-McCoy alone once again.
“It was a lot different,” he said of training without Johnson at his side. “It was just me and him pushing each other and now I gotta push myself. It's a lot harder.”
His toughness was all he had to keep pushing to run faster when others caved in. But even with a strong desire and general ignorance to pain, he missed Johnson, and his times showed it. Despite taking first at the 4A East Regional championship on Feb. 8, his time had gained three seconds that likely would be the difference between winning and even placing at the state championship.
Two weeks later Robinson-McCoy was the owner of the 4A state title. In the 13 days separating the regional and state meets, he cut nearly seven seconds he had picked up in Johnson's absence.
“I just try and practice harder than everybody else,” he said with a shrug at the Prince George's County Championships this past weekend. “That's all I try to do.”
At the county meet, Rose opted to put his star 800-meter runner in the 400, using it more as a speed workout than an opportunity to pick up a county title, something that has eluded the Jaguar his entire career. It might seem odd that a coach would consciously nix the best half-miler in Maryland in favor of an event he has never run while at Flowers, but there would be no protest from Robinson-McCoy. Just a nod and a race to run.
“He's starting to learn our program a little bit,” Rose said. “I'm looking forward to him making some special times. We've had some special runners in the 800 and I'm hoping he can be one of them.”
Robinson-McCoy will have to fend off Oxon Hill's Rami Phillips, who came dangerously close to topping the senior's state-leading time (1:56.11) at the Prince George's County Championships.
With or without Johnson — who has begun lightly jogging again — to push him in practice, he will have to “trust his training,” as Rose would say.
“[Rose] wants me to get out fast and hold it,” Robinson-McCoy said. “That's what a lot of people can't do. They get too tired or it hurts too bad. I just keep going.”