May 25, 2010

QUINA’S FORTUNE

By Chris Kowalczyk

Everybody has their own coping mechanisms. For Quina Fortune, a junior on the VCU Women's Track team, when stress strikes, she bakes.

"I tried counseling," Fortune said. "I tried it after my grandma passed, but it doesn't work because I'm not one to open up to people. I don't want people to try to study my life and figure out why I'm bitter and what not. Baking helps. It helps a lot."

Fortune's proclivity for Betty Crocker yields all sorts of goodies, from cakes to chocolate cookies. There's nothing quite like the healing power of funfetti cupcakes to Quina Fortune.

"If anything is bothering me, I will bake," Fortune, an exercise science major, said. "The track team will be like, 'are you baking today? Can we have some?'"

The spoils of Fortune's cathartic kitchen often end up all over her dormitory. Both track teams reap the benefits, as do the men's basketball team. Head Women's Track Coach Jon Riley and Assistant Men's Track Coach Ron Jones are also beneficiaries.

"One day I was in the kitchen for four hours and made 100-something cupcakes," Fortune said. "I'm like, 'guys, I made a lot of cupcakes and I need somebody to eat them. They're like, 'we'll be over.'"

Fortune grew up in a family of cooks. Cooking was a way of life and Fortune was always ready to fight her sister for the right to lick the mixing bowl. It explains a lot about Fortune's current choice for stress relief. There was nothing that made little Quina Fortune happier than her mother's funfetti cupcakes.

You'd think all of that icing would wreak havoc Fortune's blood sugar, not to mention slow her long legs. That hasn't been the case. Fortune keeps getting faster and after a blistering indoor track season, she looks primed for track stardom. It seems like the more she bakes, the more she wins.

Unfortunately, Fortune had to discover the healing power of baked goods the hard way. Lately, there have been far too many opportunities to pull out the baking pans. Uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, Fortune thought she'd seen the worst. But after losing both her grandmother and mother in the last two years alone, Fortune has had to work the oven overtime.

WRATH OF KATRINA
Fortune grew up in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. Treme sits just west of the French Quarter and is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It's a place that Fortune holds close to her heart.

"Everybody there grew up together. Once you move [to Treme], you're there to stay."

Fortune began running track when she was eight years old and was a natural, from the initial gun. She was already a star sprinter at Saint Mary's Academy, an all-girls catholic school in New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina hit in August of 2005.

When the levees broke and flooded New Orleans, the water reached the porch steps of Fortune's house, but the home was spared. However, with most of the city underwater, Fortune and her family still had to evacuate.

They weaved through a maze of knee-deep water, downed power lines and fallen trees as they exited New Orleans and made their way to Houston, Tex., where they slept in the Astrodome. Once the whole family was accounted for, they shuttled to Shreveport, La. for a brief period. Eventually, Fortune and her family moved to Decatur, Ala., where her aunt, a Bell South employee, had been transferred. Fortune also spent a short time in Georgia, but was unhappy and moved back to Alabama. It wasn't until December that they could return to New Orleans.

Flooding hit Saint Mary's Academy, which sat on New Orleans' West Bank, hard, so Fortune had to attend John Ehret High School on the East Bank. Since Ehret was 30 minutes away, Fortune lived with the family of her summer track coach, who was a family friend.

Fortune went on to win the state championship in the 200-meter dash for Ehret High School. Although she was tearing up the track, Fortune was miserable. She'd attended small, private schools her entire life and Ehret, a large, public institution, was like living in another world. The following year, Saint Mary's moved to an old elementary school, and Fortune returned for her senior season.

Although she returned to her old neighborhood, the city was noticeably different. New Orleans had long been associated with Mardi Gras and jazz, but now the city was ravaged by destruction and despair. It was a hard pill to swallow.

"It's different," Fortune said of her hometown. "It doesn't feel the same. I don't think it will ever be the same as it was before the hurricane. It feels like a lot of stuff is missing. A lot of neighborhoods, they haven't started rebuilding and I doubt they ever will."

MOTHER KNOWS BEST
Angela McWilliams was as strong-willed as mothers come, and she was going to make sure that her daughter Quina grew up right. Fortune's father was rarely around, so McWilliams spent most of her adult life as a single mom. She had to work long hours at the New Orleans Clerk of Courts to provide for her daughter, but McWilliams always made her presence known.

"She was pretty much the only person I had, because my mom and dad split up when I was pretty young," Fortune said. "She worked all the time. I rarely saw her, but she made sure she came to all of my track meets. Anything that I did, she was there, no matter what."

McWilliams made sure Fortune attended solid, private, catholic schools. Good grades were a must, and McWilliams did her best to curtail any questionable behavior. She also had final say in all big decisions.

VCU Head Coach Jon Riley, then an assistant at Belmont in Nashville, Tenn., is a New Orleans native and was a family friend. McWilliams liked Belmont's reputation as a small, parochial school and had faith in Riley as a coach. McWilliams was required to sign off on Fortune's National Letter of Intent, since her daughter wasn't 18, so she made it clear that Belmont was in Quina's best interests. After Riley left Belmont for VCU after Fortune's freshman year, McWilliams urged her daughter to follow in his footsteps.

On May 28, 2009 – after Fortune's sophomore year at VCU, McWilliams suffered a massive brain aneurysm. She was removed from life support a few days later and died at the age of 50.

Fortune had leaned on her mother so much, for so long, and now she was gone. It was a crippling blow. Initially, she considered returning to New Orleans for good. But when she sat and reflected, Fortune knew she had to come back to VCU. Even though she wasn't there in the flesh, Angela McWilliams was still steering her daughter in the right direction.

"My mom never wanted me to drop out of school," Fortune said. "She didn't even want me to go to school in Louisiana. She wanted me to go away. So, I know if I would've stayed home after my mom passed, she would've been very disappointed."

SPRINTING AHEAD
She admits that she's not good at expressing her emotions, so those that aren't molded into cakes and cookies in the kitchen are released on the track. Throughout her life, Fortune always knew she could turn to running. It's been one of her biggest allies.

"Running is my outlet…as long as I'm out there running, nothing bad can happen. That's pretty much how I put it together."

A number of opponents probably noticed something new on Fortune this year, as the lanky VCU junior sprinted past them. Poking out of the shoulders of her track singlet are angel's wings. They're part of a large tattoo that pays tribute to her late mother. In the middle of those wings is the word "Mom", crowned by a shining halo. Written underneath on a waving scroll are the dates of Angela McWilliams' birth and death.

Despite her personal tragedies, Fortune chooses to let her running do most of her talking. This year, she spoke louder than ever. On March 8, at the ECAC Championships in Boston, Mass, Fortune established a new school record of 23.88 in the 200-meter dash. Her time was good enough for an NCAA Provisional Qualifying Mark. It was the third time that Fortune broke the record over the winter.  On April 10, Fortune teamed with Whitney Key, Jazlynn Finney and Dionna Hayes to set a VCU record of 45.93 in the 4x100-meter relay.

"She's had a string of mishaps and she's kept persevering and dealing with me and running," Riley, VCU's second-year coach, said. "I commend her for what she's doing now, for staying focused in the classroom. Her grades went up, her performance [on the track] is getting better and she's had to deal with all of those incidents."

Riley sees Fortune as a rare talent, and in turn, his expectations are high. In addition to her 200-meter exploits, Riley believes Fortune can be a top-notch 400-meter runner. So far, the returns are good. With any luck from here on out, the only cooking Fortune does will be on the track.

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