A Dying Race
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.
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.
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UCF Knights Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 29, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. Florida Atlantic University Owls Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 5, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulane University Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 12, 11:00am
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 workout
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."
As Glover learned how to balance work and training, she regained her speed, then got even faster. Two years ago she made the Goodwill Games team and brought home first place. That gained her access to the European circuit, which next to the Olympics is the biggest thing in track and field.
"Over here you're nobody," Glover says. "But when you go to these European meets, the stadium is packed; people are even outside standing. They have a fence up trying to keep all the fans from jumping onto the track." There's serious money to be made as well. Last year Glover competed in the elite Grand Prix Golden League, a series of invitation-only meets with prize money in the tens of thousands of dollars for each event, compared to the $3,000 to $5,000 prize for winning a big U.S. meet. She finished second in points in the women's 400-meter hurdles, ninth in points for all women's events and third in the Grand Prix final 400-meter hurdles. Not bad for a full-time second-grade teacher.
"Last year I worked every day," Glover says proudly. "Got off about three-thirty, on the track at four, train until seven. Go home, do a little weight workout. Eat dinner, do some schoolwork or something, get in the bed at twelve. Get out of bed at six the next morning and go to work. That was my regimen."
Although Glover earned enough in Europe to allow her to take a leave of absence and train full-time this year for the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, she will certainly return to the classroom. "Track money is like fool's gold," says Don Glover. "The 400-meter hurdles is only Grand Prix every other year, so one year there's a lot of money, the next year you can't even make half that. Even your shoe deal is based on how fast you run and how you do in Golden League meets, world championships, Olympic Games. If you don't make those, you don't make any money."
"It's not like baseball and football, where you sign these big ol' million-dollar contracts," Sandra says. "You have to go out every year and make your money. Make the effort, train hard. Everyone is just so gung ho about football and baseball. People don't realize how hard we have to train. I started training in October, and I'm not going to stop until the Olympics [in September]. Six days a week, hard, hard training. Three to four hours a day. I run this race in 53 seconds. That's faster than a lot of men can run an open quarter [with no hurdles]. They just don't know how hard I train."
"I'd like to see some football players run the 400 hurdles," adds Don. "They think they're in great shape. You get out here and split a 52 in the 400, then five minutes later we ask you to run 300 meters in 40 seconds. I bet you those guys would be lying dead right on the track. And those are women's times."
Glover is the reigning U.S. champion, and as of this writing had the fastest time in the world this year, 55.14 (her personal best is 53.65; the world record of 52.61 was set by the USA's Kim Batten in 1995). This should be the year that her talent, her determination, her husband and her faith finally get her to the Olympics at age 31.
"One thing I attribute my success to is my faith in Christ," she says. "I used to get mad about having to work and train, but on days when I thought I could not go on, He was always there to carry me through the workouts. That's why when I win this gold medal, all glory goes to Him."
It sure won't go to her. After Glover won the Goodwill Games and the U.S. championships, after she became a household name in Europe, "nobody knew," says her husband. "Since Carl Lewis retired [in 1997], the city has acted like track retired in Houston. But it didn't. I don't think there's any place in the country that has as many world-class athletes as Houston. And the community doesn't even know it. I remember when one of the ladies won in ice-skating, and there was a big ol' sign in flashing lights, 'Welcome to Sugar Land, home of Tara Lipinski.'
"Hey, we live in Sugar Land, too."
Look inside yourself. What do you find?
Inside is the only place you can seek help at a time like this, when the lactic acid starts collecting in your muscles and the oxygen starts disappearing from your blood. You know this, just as surely as you know that ping in your calf means drink water or that twinge in your hamstring means slow down. Your coach is on the sidelines and yet a million miles away. Your teammates are trying to defeat their own demons, maybe even you. There are no referees to blame. There's only your will. Your resolve. Your heart.
This race belongs to you alone.
"The greatest thing about track and field is, even the average person can identify with the desire to accomplish something as an individual," says Frank Rutherford, a triple jumper from the Bahamas who has called Houston home for the past 17 years. "No other sport epitomizes the focus, discipline, drive, motivation, intuition, tenacity, every word you can think of to describe somebody feeling good about themselves and trying to accomplish something. This is a sport that clearly defines individuality. Every average person has their own race to run in life. Team sports has its place also; you have to learn how to get along with other people. But before you can get along with others, you have to get along with yourself."
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."
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."
Leroy Burrell is a decorated veteran of track's mental wars. Second only to Lewis in the pantheon of Houston sprinting, he took over from Tellez as head coach of the Cougar track team in 1998 after a career that included world records in the 4x100-meter relay and the 100-meter dash, the latter being 9.85 seconds in 1994.
"When you line up against the eight best sprinters in the world, you have to have a tremendous amount of confidence in your ability, in your training, in your race plan. It takes a tremendous amount of mental strength and mental stamina to do what you planned to do, what you've worked to do, at that critical moment. Because in the heat of battle, your weaknesses are always, always exposed."
How, exactly, does one train the mind? "You have to visualize what you want to accomplish," Burrell says. "You have to say, 'I'm going to push myself beyond this pain.' You have to welcome pain. Certain types of pain, you welcome that. That's a good thing. Because that's the pain that's going to make you succeed."
You have a choice: Run or die.
Okay, dying's not really an option, because you didn't die at practice yesterday. Right now, though, it would be nice to keel over right here on the track. Then you could escape the piano on your back and the vise squeezing your hip flexors and the hot air pouring fire into your chest. To die on this track would be just lovely
Cheryl Dickey did say howdy to death once. In her kitchen.
Dickey, a 110-meter hurdler, has a history of injuries, so much so that she has developed a supremely stoic tolerance for pain. So when she started to feel extremely tired while working out at the Rice University track in the spring of 1999, she just pushed herself harder. The fatigue persisted for weeks. So did Dickey.
"The week after Easter, we were doing some short quick stuff, some speed work, and I couldn't even make it 20 meters. The next day I couldn't even get to the first hurdle. Then I couldn't even get out of the blocks. I didn't know I was bleedin' inside."
That night she had the cold sweats and got up to get some water from the kitchen. It took her about an hour to get there. After lying on the floor for a while, she finally decided that visiting a doctor might be a good idea. "I get back down to the emergency room after the X-rays, and they're like, 'Put this on, get ready. Ma'am, we have to operate right away. If we don't, you can die. You're lucky you came in just in time.' "
A year after surgeons stanched her internal abdominal bleeding, Dickey, a Houston native and Texas Southern University graduate, is back on the Rice track for three, four hours a day. If the University of Houston's new facility is the sleek Formula One race car of the track world, then Rice is a rough-hewn Chevy Monte Carlo burning up NASCAR. The track is home base for a bevy of once and future Olympians, including Nigerian sprinter Mary Onyali, an Olympic 200-meter silver medalist in 1996 and TSU graduate; long jumper Kareem Streete-Thompson, who once beat Carl Lewis in his prime; veteran 110-meter hurdler Courtney Hawkins; decathlete Ricky Barker; Angela Blackett, one of the top women's 400-meter hurdlers in the world; and others.
Dickey, who made the 1996 Olympic team with a personal record of 12.72 and was ranked in the world's top ten in 1998, runs with the muscular style of someone steeling herself to be hit. Today she is doing 150-meter sprints with a training partner. Sprint 150 meters, walk back, repeat eight times.
"Normally we do ten of those," says Dickey, 33. "As the season progresses, the workouts get longer. People don't understand why I work out so long. I'm not going to stop until I feel good about what I've done. I never leave on a bad note. There have been times I've been out here at ten o'clock at night."
Am I ready?
Have I done everything in my power to succeed? Have I fully prepared myself? Is there anything else I can do to gain that split-second difference between first and last?
Is there anything at all that I can do?
"Bryan Bronson was driven to win, and he usually did," says Rice track coach Ray Davidson. "Sometimes it got him hurt because he would almost compete too hard."
A lot of fast kids have come though Davidson's program in his 13 years at Rice, but Bronson was special. And not just because he got caught taking steroids.
Bronson was a superstar coming out of Jasper High School in East Texas, the best 300-meter hurdler in the country and winner of three golds at the World Junior Championships. "He was real quiet; you wouldn't notice him other than his ability to run," says his high school coach, Lloyd Weatherspoon. "He went to the regionals a freshman, took third place, and from then on he won everything."
After Bronson won a 1993 NCAA championship as a sophomore at Rice, he experienced the first in a series of curious lapses. During Bronson's junior year, Davidson says, he got sick with a mysterious feverish ailment that left him so weak he couldn't finish the easiest workouts for weeks at a time. An extremely private person, Bronson refused to discuss his illness with anyone, and he bounced back for his senior season and was named Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
"When he would line up to run something at practice, everybody would stop what they were doing to watch him run," Davidson says. "The girls, the guys -- it was something to watch."
Bronson won the Olympic trials in 1996 -- and then ran out of gas at the Atlanta Games, coming in last in the semifinals in a lethargic 50.32 seconds. The disappointing finish only seemed to energize Bronson. After a U.S. championship and a bronze medal at the world championships in 1997, he absolutely dominated in 1998, clocking the five best times in the world that year, including a 47.03 that was the third-best time ever. Kevin Young's world record of 46.78 seemed but a few races away. Bronson also hit the big time in 1998 on the Grand Prix circuit. He went undefeated in the Golden League, winning $15,000 for each of his half dozen first-place finishes.
Bronson was shepherded through Europe by his agent, Bob Pelletier. "He was very calculated, always planned everything out," Pelletier says. "He had goals, and he made sure they were attainable."
Bronson's Grand Prix tear led up to another huge letdown. Bronson stood to earn $250,000 for winning the Grand Prix final, but he was caught at the final hurdle by an unheralded Frenchman and lost the race in the final few meters.
No one knew it at the time, but several weeks before that race, at the July 14 Grand Prix meet in Rome, Bronson had tested positive for what the International Amateur Athletic Foundation called "abnormal steroid concentrations." Bronson provided a letter from his doctor and lawyer saying he had a "medical problem," so the IAAF allowed him to keep competing. But when Bronson failed to provide further documentation of his illness, he was suspended in March 1999.
"I was very surprised," remembers Davidson, who says Bronson had told him earlier that he had Hodgkin's disease. "He would never take anything while he was here. Creatine was considered okay, but he wouldn't take it. He never even liked to take aspirin."
Bronson, already a recluse, completely vanished after his suspension. "He broke off relations with his friends, his relatives, his teammates, his coach, with everybody," his coach Kim Wrinkle said at the time. "He's done that before. He's a very private person. He goes into periods of seclusion."
How long will this period last? Pelletier says the IAAF has yet to resolve some issues about Bronson's suspension, and that the fallen superstar remains in the Houston area. "He's here in Houston somewhere," confirms Davidson. "There are rumors that he's training, but all you hear are rumors. He's like a ghost out there somewhere."
Sure, you've won a few meets, beaten a few people. So what. No big deal. That was supposed to happen. The real test is the U.S. Olympic trials this July in Sacramento. Top three at the trials go down under to the Olympics. Now that's a Big Deal.
Those who train with Chris Jones call him Psycho.
"Let's see, a few weeks ago I did eight 200s in 24 seconds each, with two minutes of rest between each one. I was pretty much crawling to the training room after that," says the 26-year-old Dallas native. "Yesterday I did a breakdown, 400 yards in 47.5 seconds, 300 in 35 flat, 200 in 21.7, 150 in 16.3. After a workout like that you can't really do much else."
Jones competes in the 400-meter dash, perhaps the toughest, most painful, most competitive event in the world today. His personal best is 44.87; the world record of 43.18 was set by the indomitable Michael Johnson last year. After graduating from the University of Houston last winter, Jones joined the Santa Monica Track Club and kept training under Tellez. He's one of the young athletes trying to extend Houston's tradition of track-and-field dominance.
Santa Monica helped Jones secure a modest sponsorship deal with MET-Rx nutritional products, which covers travel to meets and pays bonuses based on media attention. But Jones has to establish a name for himself, win some big meets and lower his times before he can earn any serious money on the European circuit. "I know for a fact I would be on somebody's NFL team right now had I chosen football," says Jones, who at six foot one and a slimmed-down 185 pounds would be a speedy, powerful wide receiver or defensive back. "If I was in it for the money, I'd be long gone. But I love running, I love to achieve, and I'm not gonna give it up. I figure my pay time will come."
Jenny Adams doesn't care if her pay time ever comes. The 110-meter hurdler is considered the UH women's team's best hope for an Olympic berth. After that, she plans to run long and fast enough to compete in the 2012 Games, which she hopes will take place in Houston.
"I can't really worry about money," says the 21-year-old Tomball native. "I hope that I make enough to put food on my table; if I have to work part-time I will. I'm not trying to get rich. I'm just happy to be doing what I love. So even if it's $12,000 a year, that's fine with me, because I still get to come out here and do what I love. How many other people can say they're living their childhood dream?"
Adams is light and quick in an event dominated by thick, powerful women. Where most 110-meter hurdlers seem to power their way over the barriers, in practice Adams bobs over them like a pebble skipping across a lake.
The track is both her destination and her escape. "You come out here and you're very focused, very in control of your mind and your body. It brings you a confidence. You have to dig deep every day and find the self-discipline and the motivation to keep going. It builds you as a stronger person. When I leave the track, I always feel better than when I got there."
That's not the case for Dennis Darling. "Coming out here knowing that you're gonna hurt every day, that ain't fun," says the Bahamian 400-meter runner. "It hurts every day. You never get used to it. Your body just hurts all over. Exhausting yourself every day, I don't think that's fun. But I like when I win. I just like that feeling."
Darling, 24, sports considerable muscles piled on top of his lean frame. He has a somewhat mercenary attitude about his sport, as if he knew that European riches would soon be his. He is rather precocious, having qualified for the 1996 Bahamian Olympic team in the 200-meter relay as a 20-year-old freshman at the University of Houston. His team placed sixth. Since then he has moved up to the 400, where he has an excellent chance of qualifying for Sydney. He just graduated from UH and, like so many Tellez disciples before him, signed on with the Santa Monica Track Club.
"Sprinters have to be cocky," he says. "There's nobody else out there except yourself. Who got your back? In football, someone else got your back. In basketball, someone else got your back. In track, it's just you out there trying to survive. To make your money, you gotta work. It's not like I can sit on the bench and still get paid. You got to have a mentality of 'Forget everybody else, I gotta do this. I gotta make it.' "
Of all of Tellez's young charges, however, the coach feels Darius Pemberton has the most promise. This is partly because the long jump is wide open this year, with all three medalists from the last Olympics retired. More important, Pemberton, who graduated from UH in 1998, has reconstructed his entire approach to his event, with an emphasis on building up enough speed to fling himself the 27 or so feet needed to make it to Sydney. Most practices he doesn't even jump, instead barreling out of the blocks with the 100-meter runners or flying down the long-jump runway and running right through the landing pit. His personal best is 26 feet, 8 1/2 inches. He has been hitting the weights hard and feels strong enough to pop a real long jump any day now.
"If I can carry my speed off the [takeoff] board, everything else will fall into place," says Pemberton, 25. "It's kind of like being shot out of a cannon. Basically when you leave the board, you know if you had a good jump. It's not like you land and look at the tape and say, 'Wow, that was a good jump.' When I leave the board, I know."
On the other side of pain lies paradise.
Paradise is when your body aligns itself perfectly, relaxed and yet charged with energy. Each of your limbs moves in concert, just as God intended. Your feet rise and fall of their own volition. An effortless tension crackles through your muscles. Time stands still.
This is how you were meant to run.
"It's like putting puzzles together," says Tellez, describing three decades of study of the science of running. "Analyze film, study velocity, the angle of takeoff, release velocity, how the body hits, the angles, body movement. All the research I've done, the reading and coaching that I put together over the years, it seems complicated at first because of all this information, but all of a sudden, boom! It fits together and you say, 'My God, that's simple.' Then you've created this model, and it's simplicity."
You can boil down all of this jargon -- and all of Tellez's unparalleled success in track and field -- into one word: biomechanics. The application of mechanical laws to human biology. Combine knowledge of how the body moves with an obsessive passion for teaching, and you get a great coach.
Of course, great coaches are nothing without great athletes, and Tellez convinced the greatest ever to make Houston his home.
Coming out of high school in New Jersey in 1979, Carl Lewis had his pick of any college in the country. "The difference was, when Coach Tellez called, he was the one coach that articulated to me what he could do for me as a young student athlete. All the other coaches talked about what I could do for them," Lewis said at the dedication ceremony for his alma mater's $4 million track-and-field complex. "I know that if I had gone to any other school in the world I wouldn't be standing here, I wouldn't have this recognition. I was fortunate to be coached by without question the greatest coach not only this sport has ever known, but any sport has ever known."
Tellez demanded of Lewis what he demands of all his athletes: Run and jump exactly like I tell you, every time. Not most of the time -- every time. "He was such a perfectionist," says Rutherford, the Bahamian triple jumper. "He instilled in us that even if you run fast or jump far, if it's not done right you're not going to be consistent doing it. I remember times I jumped 55 feet and did it wrong, and he would turn his back on me. I'd look up in the stands and he'd turn his back. He'd come by later and fuss me up: 'When the time comes for you in the Olympics, when you got somebody coming right behind you who's just as good as you, and he's gonna jump a foot past yours, you have to be able to respond. The only way you're gonna be able to respond is if you get things technically right.' "
Together, Tellez and Lewis changed their sport, transforming it from an "amateur" pursuit into a full-fledged professional sport. Lewis left school early, with Tellez's blessing, to accept a contract from Nike and run for the Santa Monica Track Club, which was managed by Tellez's friend and fellow coach Joe Douglas. After equaling Jesse Owens's feat of four gold medals in the 1988 Olympics, Lewis demanded that meet promoters pay him more than the customary pittance, thereby raising the pay scale for all athletes.
The reputation of Lewis and Tellez also attracted some of the best talent in the world to Santa Monica and the University of Houston, where Lewis was the epicenter of daily workouts that resembled Hollywood productions in their style and star power. By the time Tellez handed over the UH team to Burrell in 1998, after 22 years leading the Cougars and even more with Santa Monica, Tellez had helped some 20 athletes reach the Olympics, where they won at least as many medals. Since 1984 Tellez has coached six of the seven U.S. sprinters who won Olympic gold in the 100 and 200 meters.
Tellez, 66, is still out on his track every day, guiding his athletes through what he promises will be his final Olympics. His team isn't as deep as it once was, but his enthusiasm and passion remain undiminished.
Sadly, the progress of U.S. track and field followed the ebb and flow of Tellez's career, and of Lewis's. Shoe companies today are doling out much less money. Middle-tier European meets have dried up, and the big meets have cut back on appearance fees in favor of prize money. The United States Association of Track & Field is still trying to convince the TV networks that people want to watch the sport at times other than during Olympic years. The also-ran status of the sport was painfully evident at the dedication meet for the track-and-field complex on April 1, when only about 300 spectators showed up to honor the two men who have done more for track and field than anyone in the country.
After years of complaints about the lack of proper marketing, many U.S. athletes have good things to say about their current leader, Craig Masback, the CEO of USATF. Still, Masback is running against the wind. "There is clearly less money available from shoe companies," he says. "The overall support that we have been able to provide to athletes through medical insurance and stipends has gone up, but that's only to a select group of 50 or 60 athletes. [Overall] it's a tougher go. There's less guaranteed money and more performance-related money."
A more serious issue is a lack of new talent. "I know the performance level has not improved, it's decreased," says Tellez. "Times and heights have dropped down a lot. It's amazing how the level has gone down. Not as many kids are out; more are out for football and basketball and other sports. Name any good athlete in football or basketball. If we get them into track and field and they get with the right coach, it would be amazing what they could do. The world records would be destroyed if we get the right athletes."
If and when those athletes turn out, they won't be coached by Tellez. "I'm not burned out," he said after a recent practice, three days after the track was named after him. "I love to coach, but I've done what I had to do. It's time to do something different. Other than [spend time with] my wife and family, I'll travel a little bit; I have a couple horses that I ride.
"When you make commitments to these athletes, your family's first, and then coaching. Over the years coaching has almost been first. It's right together with the family. You incorporate both of them. I had to do it. I couldn't do it any other way. When you make a commitment to athletes, it's almost beyond your family. Not that you put your family second, but they're right there. Because my mind is totally on the athletes all the time. After so many years, it's time. It's time to back off."
Time to back off.
You've given up everything: money, fun, food, sex. And you feel great. Because you made a pact with your mind and your body, and then followed through with everything you had.
You've accomplished your goals -- for today.
See you tomorrow.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.