A Dying Race

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

Rutherford enrolled at the University of Houston in 1984, when the Cougar team was developing into practically an Olympic squad unto itself. Under the tutelage of Tellez, Rutherford improved his personal best by six feet, to 56 feet, in his first meet. He won meets, then NCAA championships, then a bronze medal at the world championships and a silver at the World Cup. In 1992 he won a bronze in the Olympics, giving the Bahamas its first Olympic medal in the history of that track-crazed nation.

"In the Bahamas, track and field is the NBA," Rutherford says. "TV ratings will probably never be that high in the country again as when I won that first medal. People were dancing in the street. I've seen tapes of news reporters breaking down and crying on the set. I often tell people, as Michael Jordan is equivalent to America, Frank Rutherford is equivalent to the Bahamas."

Still, he is sometimes bitter about his lack of recognition and financial reward compared to people like his friend and fellow UH alumnus Hakeem Olajuwon. "Sometimes you come to certain functions at the university, the people recognize the Leroy Burrells and the other people and let them in, but I get stopped because nobody knows me," says Rutherford, 35, who this fall will compete in his fourth Olympics. "They don't even recognize somebody like Mike Marsh."

Triple jumper Frank Rutherford and long jumper Darius Pemberton get ready 
for a biomechanical breakdown from Tom Tellez
Deron Neblett
Triple jumper Frank Rutherford and long jumper Darius Pemberton get ready for a biomechanical breakdown from Tom Tellez
Ray Davidson coached Bryan Bronson at Rice.
Deron Neblett
Ray Davidson coached Bryan Bronson at Rice.

Marsh went to his first Olympics in 1988, while a student at UCLA, as an alternate in the 4x100-meter relay. After graduating, he moved to Houston to train with Tellez under the auspices of the Santa Monica Track Club, which Carl Lewis had made famous with his four gold medals in '88. At the 1992 Barcelona Games, Marsh won gold in the 200 and helped set the still-standing world record of 37.40 in the 4x100-meter relay with Burrell, Dennis Mitchell and Lewis. He also helped set the 4x200-meter world record of 1:18.68 in 1994.

At the 1996 Atlanta Games, Marsh finished fifth in the 100-meter final and, injured, eighth in the 200. Still, as one of the final holdovers from the glory days of Houston sprinting, he's a credible threat to medal in the 100 and 200 at the Sydney Games. At his first outdoor race this year, the Mt. SAC Relays in April, Marsh ran a blazing, albeit wind-aided, 9.90 in the 100.

"I've made my living in track for the past 12 years," says Marsh, 32. "It's nothing compared to what basketball and football players make; we don't live in mansions or have four or five cars, but you can make a very good living. A good sprinter, top ten in the world, can probably make a hundred grand. Top five, you can make two or three hundred grand. There's a big difference if you're number one. Number one probably makes a million."

This is all relative, of course, because Marsh competes in the most popular, glamorous events in his sport. Meet promoters have paid top sprinters $20,000 to $100,000 just to show up for a race, plus performance bonuses of up to $15,000, because they bring fans to the arena. All of these numbers are supremely negotiable, depending on how well -- or how poorly -- an athlete has performed recently.

The days when Marsh commanded tens of thousands of dollars for an appearance are behind him, but he remains among the world's best. "I couldn't have stayed in the sport this long unless you love it. It teaches you a whole lot about life. Track teaches you a whole lot of discipline. It teaches you how to get into something and follow a goal even though there's a lot of negative energy around you. That's good training for anything that you do. In my whole career people have said, 'You can't do it.' Now they say, 'You're too old.' After a while you develop an immunity and the strength you'll need throughout life."

Marsh, fellow sprinter and Houston resident Floyd Heard, and Michelle Burrell, wife of former world record-holder Leroy, form the last links to the powerhouse Santa Monica Track Club of old. Michelle Burrell, who won a gold medal in 1992 in the 4x200-meter relay, is preparing for her final shot at Olympic gold. So every afternoon, before her sons, Cameron and Josh, get off from school, she heads to the UH track to torture her 35-year-old body.

Mondays it's "breakdowns," full-speed sprints of 500, 400, 300 and 200 meters, with ten minutes of rest between each one. Other days she'll sprint 150 meters, then walk 250, then repeat the cycle six times. Or she'll practice gun starts, blasting out of the blocks five or ten times with all the speed and intensity of a real race. After all these workouts come strenuous jumping exercises that prepare her leg muscles to explode on demand. Two days a week she's in the weight room for an hour or two at a time.

Meanwhile, the most important training goes on inside her head. "Track is 99 percent mental," she says. "When you're on the starting line, everyone's in shape. There are eight people, but only one can win. It comes down to who's ready to compete, is able to keep a cool head, run their race and relax."

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