At 47 years old, Erika Pierce is not only the top-ranked masters pentathlete and heptathlete in the country, she also keeps breaking her own national records in both events year
As cliché as it may sound, there really is a lot to the saying “you’re getting better with age,” especially when talking about Erika Pierce.
At 47 years old, Pierce is not only the top-ranked masters pentathlete and heptathlete in the USA, she also keeps breaking her own national records in both events year after year as she zooms through her 40s.
To make her accomplishments that much more impressive, Pierce successfully balances her intense training and national competitions with a full-time middle school teaching job, her marriage to Boys and Girls Club Director James Pierce and being a mother to her two pre-teen girls, her biggest role of all.
But Erika Pierce’s amazing athletic journey almost never got off the ground. She quit her high school track team in Cornwall, New York, after only one week because, of all reasons, she didn’t like the long warm-up runs prior to the actual practice.
“I’m the first to admit that I was kind of lazy,” laughed Pierce. “Up to that point, things had come naturally and easy to me, so I didn’t like to have to work and those long warm ups felt like work.”
Her coach, Mike Bellarosa, saw something special in the young, headstrong athlete and approached Pierce a year later with a deal to persuade her to come join the team again.
“He said one simple thing: ‘I won’t make you run any long distances…I promise!’ and it worked,” said Pierce.
Bellarosa’s gut instinct was right. Pierce excelled throughout the rest of high school in a variety of track events, with the 400 hurdles becoming her specialty. Pierce culminated her stellar high school career with a fifth-place finish at USATF Junior Nationals.
Her impressive times in a shortened high school career, along with her excellent grades, caught the fancy of several collegiate coaches, including Harvard and Villanova, but she ultimately decided to attend the University of Virginia, starting in the fall of 1989.
The New York school girl’s tenure at Virginia began with much enthusiasm. She continued to excel at the 400 hurdles, where she finished third at the ACC Championships as a first-year. She then, thanks to her UVa coach’s advice, happily moved into the heptathlon.
This multi-faceted event features seven different disciplines over a two-day competition. Day one consists of the 100 hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200. Day two culminates with the long jump, javelin and 800. Pierce was so athletically adept in high school that she had already competed in all of the events except the javelin, which is, because of liability issues, not offered at the high school level.
Pierce quickly adapted to her new event and garnered another third-place finish at the ACC Championships.
Halfway through her collegiate career, Pierce had been happy and content with her athletic progress. However, by the time she got to her senior year, thanks to a series of injuries and constantly feeling overly tired, she was burned out. Pierce didn’t even compete at the ACC Championships that year and graduated from Virginia in need of a break. At that point, she decided to retire forever from the sport she had once loved so much.
Or so she thought.
A year later, after a brief stint working for a law firm in Washington, D.C., and getting herself way out of shape from a lack of activity and, as Pierce bluntly put it, “laziness,” she embarked upon a graduate program at JMU. Upon her arrival in Harrisonburg, she noted that the track team was in need of an assistant coach, so she took the job and started coaching the heptathletes and hurdlers.
Then a funny thing happened. Pierce, in addition to coaching, began working out with the team and then competing again.
“I had found a new sense of enthusiasm and energy,” recalled Pierce. “I felt very motivated, as I was now doing it for myself. I felt like a new person, as the passion for hurdling and competing started bubbling up within me.”
After her first competition, in the spring of 1995, Pierce came within a single second of qualifying for the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials.
“I stunned myself and thought ‘Wow, I can do this!’ So, I called my high school coach and asked him if he would be willing to help me again.”
Bellarosa agreed to coach his former pupil again, and within a few short months of the duo reuniting, he had Pierce, with her renewed dedication and determination, on the starting line at the 1995 USA Track Championships and, a year later, even more impressively, at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials.
Then, in the fall of 1996, just as quick as her meteoric comeback had started, Pierce seemingly ended her career by suddenly walking away from the track.
“I met James during my first year of teaching at CHS and I decided to devote my time to our relationship, which ultimately became our marriage,” reflected Pierce. “I also was squarely focused on earning a Ph.D. from the Curry School and to my overall teaching career.”
For the next 17 years, Pierce didn’t take a single step on a track. Then, one day in 2012, one of her colleagues asked her why she wasn’t competing in the masters division at track meets.
“I had never heard of it before and it perked my interest,” Pierce said. “So I looked into it and before I knew it, I was back at it again.”
Pierce, who by now had two daughters, began her masters comeback by coaching herself and covering all the important bases as she worked in addition to fine tuning her specific events, on weights, stretching and diet.
Her masters debut came at the 2013 U.S. Indoor Pentathlon (five events). With James and her kids cheering in the stands, Pierce broke the U.S. record for 40-44-year-olds and earned a gold medal.
“Walking out onto the track after 17 years felt like it all came rushing back again,” reminisced Pierce. “I felt so at peace, so at home, so relaxed and it felt so right to me. It just all clicked.”
And clicked it did. Pierce went on an amazing tear, breaking her own indoor record in 2014 and the outdoor heptathlon record in 2015 and then again in the 45-49 division, setting new records in both the indoor pentathlon and outdoor heptathlon in 2016.
In doing so, Pierce had vaulted herself into rare air as one of the most heralded and decorated masters track athletes in the country. This was validated when the USATF bestowed their highest honor upon Pierce when they awarded her the Masters Athlete of the Year in 2013 and again in 2016 in her age group.
Then, in December of 2016, after having reached the national pinnacle of her events, Pierce set her sights on conquering a new goal: breaking 60 seconds in the 400 meters at the masters division of the 2017 USATF National Championships.
And once again, she called on Bellarosa, her beloved old coach, to help her out.
“It was wonderful being back with him again,” smiled Pierce. “He knows me better as an athlete than anyone else and he always knows exactly what to say. I feel like we’ve come full circle and that’s very special to me.”
With two hard workouts a week, balanced between full-time teaching and family time, the 47-year-old trained her way, with the guidance of her longtime coach, to the starting line of the country’s biggest track stage. She came within an eyelash of nailing her lofty goal, crossing the finish line in 60.71, a time that many female high school track stars would feel lucky to run.
Pierce is the first to admit that, currently, she’s not only in the best shape of her life but also is way smarter about listening to her fit, but nevertheless aging body.
“Training at the level I’m at is really hard on this 47-year-old body,” observed Pierce. “So, I’ve gotten really good about laying off when something hurts and taking a season off in between competition cycles.”
So, even after setting numerous national records and winning multiple national championships, Pierce still feels motivated to accomplish even more.
Last fall, she blazed to a 1:45 in her first half marathon and this summer she hopes to compete in all of the events at the World Masters Track and Field Championships in Spain. You heard right, she hopes to compete in ALL of the events.
There’s simply no sitting still for this mom on the go.
“I really want to continue to challenge myself,” gushed the determined champ. “I’m stronger than I’ve ever been in my whole life and I want to keep it going!”
She really is getting better with age.