A Dying Race

Houston boasts some of the biggest track legends in the world. Who cares? They do.

This is not a game.

Basketball is a game. Toss the ball through the hoop. Score 30 points, lose, go home happy. Football, that's the ultimate American game. Violent, powerful, full of bad, bad men, and easily distilled into entertaining highlights. Baseball, now there's a real nice game. Not too taxing. Have a chew or some sunflower seeds while you're at it. Rack up big stats and reap the benefits. Think Mark McGwire ain't having fun, even though St. Louis finished in the back of the pack last year? That's okay, though. Some of the greatest ballplayers of all time never won a championship. Charles Barkley. Ernie Banks. Earl Campbell. All among the "best to ever play the game."

But track and field is not a game. This is what you remind yourself daily.

Don Glover, a Phillips Petroleum engineer, is also his wife's coach.
Deron Neblett
Don Glover, a Phillips Petroleum engineer, is also his wife's coach.

Track and field is serious business. It's you against your mind against your lungs against your heart against history. It's a constant quest for pain -- not headache or twisted-ankle pain, but pliers-digging-in-your-kidney, steel-bands-constricting-your-lungs, cement-hardening-in-your-butt pain. It's trying to feed yourself when corporate sponsors value your life's work somewhere between minor league baseball and the X Games. It's being forever unrecognized, an anonymous champion. It's putting forth the type of commitment known mostly to nuns and Navy SEALs. Often at the same pay scale.

You have company in your odyssey, however. You run in Houston, home to as many world-class track-and-field athletes as any city on the planet. Olympians flock here, train here, retire here. They know your struggle. Not that they can help you endure it. But they know it. And this knowledge will have to be enough to get you through today's workoutŠ

Standing beneath the bleachers at the University of Houston, wearing a serious expression and a plain, loose-fitting outfit, Sandra Glover looks every inch the schoolteacher that she is. She seems almost frail standing among the track-and-field elite waiting to be introduced during the dedication ceremony for the Tom Tellez Track in the Carl Lewis International Track and Field Complex. About the only sign that Glover is one of the fastest women in the world at the grueling 400-meter hurdles is her bright red-and-white Cougar baseball cap with "All-American" stitched on the front.

When Glover takes her place among the star pupils of the legendary Coach Tellez, pride shines through her reserved features. She has had to run much farther than the 200 miles from her hometown of Palestine, Texas, to make it here today.

"I wasn't exactly a high school sensation," Glover said earlier, when asked to describe her career. "But my junior year in high school, I realized that I could take this track, jumping over these hurdles, and try to get a scholarship to go to school."

Glover, the third daughter born to a factory worker and his homemaker wife, ended up with a full ride to Stephen F. Austin State University, where she competed with moderate results from 1987 to 1989. After her coach left, she decided to transfer to Houston, where she came under the tutelage of Tellez. A genius at the biomechanics of running, Tellez broke down Glover's technique in order to rebuild it correctly, and Glover got her time in the 400-meter hurdles down into the 57-second range, qualifying for the national collegiate championships, where she finished tenth. Glover improved to fifth her senior year, leading her to wonder how fast she could have been if her technique had been correct all along.

Tellez's athletes never really leave him, at least the smart ones, so after she exhausted her eligibility Glover stayed in Houston to get her degree in elementary education and train with Coach T. She clocked a time of 55.7 seconds in 1992, good enough to get to the U.S. Olympic trials, but she failed to finish in the top three and qualify for the Atlanta Games.

Then came graduation, and trouble.

Had Glover possessed the same talents in basketball, volleyball, tennis or soccer, she could have gone professional. Even if she had lived in, say, the Bahamas, or some other country that loves track and field, a government stipend would have enabled her to train full-time. But here in the richest nation on earth, no such luxuries are available to a very fast 400-meter hurdler. So in the fall of 1993 she started teaching pre-K and kindergarten at the Thurgood Marshall school on the north side of town.

"When I first started working and training, I would come home just crying," Glover says. "I had 22, 23 little bodies around me all day. Field trip days and you're out and about all day, on your feet trying to keep them in line. I would skip a lot of workouts, like, 'My body is too tired. I can't do this workout today. I'm just too tired.' "

Glover's times started creeping back up -- 56 seconds, 57, 58. "I could barely make it through the workouts, and my races stunk," she says. "A lot of people just counted me out." That's when her husband, Don, a Phillips Petroleum engineer whom she met at a Carl Lewis invitational track meet, began to play a more active role in her career. Tellez was pretty much finished each day by the time Glover got to the track at 4:30 p.m. So Don started soaking up details about the hurdles, buying books, researching the event. He sought out other coaches across town at the Rice University track, like Victor Lopez, Ray Davidson, Wen Yang and Kim Wrinkle. "I basically weaned myself away from them, and Don became my coach, my motivator, my massage therapist, my psychologist, my spiritual guide," Glover says. "And a punching bag on those days when I was tired and felt like I couldn't take any more."

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