The Running Men

In Houston, the state's track powerhouse, two coaches are testing the mettle — and medal-winning potential — of tomorrow's speedsters.

March 2000By Comments

It could be reasonably said that behind every great athlete stands a great coach. Michael Jordan had Phil Jackson, for instance, and Troy Aikman had Jimmy Johnson — as opposed to Chan Gailey — whose bidding he was happily doing when the Dallas Cowboys were winning successive Super Bowls. Conversely, Brett Favre has appeared to be just an average quarterback without Mike Holmgren pushing him. And how many times does the camera flash to Brad Gilbert anxiously sitting in the stands when Andre Agassi is in a big match? Or Bela Karolyi exhorting his gymnasts to go for Olympic gold?

Not every accomplished athlete, however, seems to have a coach. Think of the famous speedsters Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson: Why do we never see their coaches? Does a sprinter even need one? Running is an elementary activity, one that most of us have mastered by the first grade. Ask any world-class runner, though, and he’ll explain to you that he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without a coach. He’ll tell you that running, far from being simply the movement of one foot in front of the other, is as technical and as exacting as throwing a perfect slider. “There are something like ninety distinct actions a runner has to remember in the hundred-meter dash,” says Dan Pfaff, the assistant men’s track and field coach at the University of Texas at Austin.

That observation is not news in Houston, the most storied track city in the country’s greatest track state. World-class runners flock there from around the world — many aspiring to be like Lewis, who made his name in the Bayou City — and these days they do so to train under either Victor Lopez, the women’s head track and field coach at Rice University, or Leroy Burrell, the head coach of the men’s and women’s track and field programs at the University of Houston. In 21 years at Rice the 56-year-old Lopez, a native of Puerto Rico, has earned a reputation as one of the most influential and innovative coaches anywhere; the 32-year-old Burrell, who grew up in Pennsylvania, was a star himself, known to everyone as the fastest human in the world before he signed on at U of H a year and a half ago. The two men share an almost religious devotion to their sport, which is far less appreciated in this country than it is elsewhere, and they share an Olympic past. Each has been to the Games multiple times: the former as a coach, the latter as a competitor.

Track people are a cultured group; to earn a living, American professionals tour extensively in Europe and Asia, where most of the big events are held. Thus, when I had dinner with Burrell at a Houston sushi bar last October, he ordered our meal in Japanese, demonstrating a wider vocabulary than even our chef. A far cry, I thought, from the unworldly eighteen-year-old who left his suburban Philadelphia home in 1985 to attend U of H and run track for Tom Tellez, the coach who put Lewis — his former student — on the road to greatness. “It was tough to adjust when I got here,” Burrell told me. “The first time someone slapped some guacamole on my plate, I said, ‘What the heck is that?'”

For people who equate the sprinter’s body with Lewis’ long-limbed, lithe figure, it’s hard to imagine short, stout Burrell logging a world-record time in the 100 meters. But the fact is that Lewis is the exception and not the rule; top sprinters more often have Burrell’s compact frame, though he’s a little rounder now than when he was in training. Heavily recruited out of high school, Burrell made all-American in his first season as a Cougar. But the following year, during the long jump preliminaries at the Southwest Conference outdoor championships, he landed awkwardly, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. “The success I had as a freshman was unprecedented,” he says. “I broke all of Carl’s freshman records. Coming back was really hard.”

It took him almost two years of rehabilitation in the weight room and swimming pool to regain his form. Though he was unable to compete in the 1988 Olympics, he went on to become the world’s top-ranked sprinter in 1990 and 1991, winning 19 of the 22 races he entered. For a while, he and Lewis were playing catch with the record in the 100-meter dash, track’s glory race. In 1991 Burrell set the record with a time of 9.90 seconds, narrowly beating out Lewis, who ran a 9.92. Later that year, in Tokyo, Burrell bettered his record by running a 9.88, but he was beaten out by Lewis’ 9.86 in the same race. Finally, on July 6, 1994, Burrell regained the title by running a 9.85 in Lausanne, Switzerland — still the fifth-fastest time ever recorded. In the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992, Lewis and Burrell joined forces on the 4 x 100 relay team, setting a world record and bringing home a gold medal.

In the years following that triumph, Burrell, fighting nagging injuries, began to realize that his heart wasn’t in the sport as much as it once was. He went overseas for the 1997 season but didn’t enjoy it. “I was homesick for my wife and two kids,” he says. “In warm-ups I’d already be thinking about getting to the plane after the race to get home.” But leaving a life he’d known for so long wasn’t easy. After getting accepted to law school, he deferred a year to train for the 2000 Olympics, then had second thoughts. “Two years ago, while I was training, I thought about it and said to myself, ‘Well, you applied to law school, so you must have been thinking about getting out of track. You’re trying to find a way to quit, so why don’t you just get out of it now on your own terms?'”

Coincidentally, Tellez was about to retire from U of H. Although Burrell had no coaching experience, his mentor thought his notoriety made him a good successor. “I felt that the way track is going and the way recruiting is going — you have to go out and raise money, and people have to know you — he had all the right qualities,” Tellez says. “Because of his world records, I thought he could help the school. Because of his intelligence, I knew he could do the job.” That faith has been rewarded so far: In Burrell’s first year U of H won the Conference USA track and field championship, and his students speak of him with the same high regard that he speaks of Tellez. “If I’m having any kind of anxiety problems, I can go to him, because he’s been there,” says Jenny Adams, a senior from Tomball who is training for the Olympic trials in the hurdles. “When you’re practicing with the best, it gives you a lot of confidence,” adds Anthony Authorlee, a junior sprinter from Houston. “You think, ‘I’m practicing with Coach, world record holder.'”

For his part, Burrell is just happy to exist in the world of track, and he’s busier than ever. Before, he only had to worry about running. Now he has scheduling, recruiting, paperwork, and fundraising to worry about, not to mention trying to fill Tellez’s shoes. “There can be pressure in the responsibility, but I minimize that because I realize that I’m not Tom,” he says. “Maybe I’m selling myself short, but if I can have half the success that he did, I’ll be successful.”

Lopez would say the same, even though he has excelled as a coach — much more so than he ever did as an athlete. A champion high school sprinter in Puerto Rico, he received numerous scholarship offers, ultimately deciding to attend U of H under Tellez’s predecessor, Johnny Morris. His education was disrupted, however, by the Vietnam War; he was drafted and set to go in 1967, but the Puerto Rican government petitioned the Department of Defense in Washington to post Lopez at Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico, where he could train for the Olympics and coach runners at Turabo University. By the time he came back to Houston in 1970 to finish his degree, he had fallen in love with coaching.

Lopez began work on a master’s degree at U of H but got sidetracked with another stint coaching Puerto Rico’s Olympians. It was during this period, from 1973 to 1979, that he honed his method of training. Like Tellez, he became interested in the science of running. “I read every book I could get my hands on,” he says, “anything about training and running and biomechanics.” Lopez came to believe that the muscles used for running could be more effectively strengthened by breaking down the individual motions. To train them in specific ways, he devised a regimen of jumping, bounding, and skipping. The results were undeniable. “My runners were starting to shave significant amounts off their times in a relatively short stretch of training,” he says. “I knew I was on to something.”

Lopez came back to the U.S. in 1979 and continued work on his graduate degree. At the same time, he was offered a job as the part-time coach of Rice’s women’s team. He took it, but the pay wasn’t good; so to make ends meet, he worked the graveyard shift at a hotel and played percussion in a Latin band on weekends. “I would study at night and sleep a little at the hotel job,” he says, “and then go to class in the morning, coach at Rice in the afternoon, and go to class again in the evenings.” Fortunately, he had to moonlight for only a year: Under his guidance, the Rice team rapidly began to show signs of improvement, and soon enough, the job became full-time. Lopez has reveled in his life as a college coach ever since. “I have offers every year from foreign countries, from other universities,” he says. “I could make more money somewhere else, but I’m happy here. This is the perfect job. I don’t know that I could have the same kind of atmosphere and the love and care that they have here.”

Despite a prodigious knowledge of the technical end of track, Lopez presides over his team in a fatherly manner. He’s proud of the individual relationships he fosters with his young protégées and says that he ends up coaching them in life as well as sports. Out on Rice’s track one October afternoon, as his assistant ran the girls through their drills, he stood to the side talking to me, but his eyes were trained on the most-minute aspects of their form. “Excuse me,” he said in his accented English. Turning away, he gestured to a tall, thin first-year student from Jamaica. Al-ee-son, Al-ee-son, get your foot up a little higher.” He then asked another girl about a recent injury; she replied that she was more worried about a test the next day. “All the students who come to Rice have to be very intelligent,” Lopez told me. “I like to deal with intelligent people; it’s a challenge. And Rice has been able to attract good student athletes with Olympic potential but who are at the same time simple people — humble and good and intellectual.” Lopez’s students like dealing with him for much the same reason. “You can’t spend thirty minutes with Victor Lopez without feeling good about life,” says Andrea Blackett, a native of Barbados who trained under him at Rice and now competes professionally as a hurdler. “He has taught us so much, and from every standpoint, about how to be happy.”

Lopez expects this year to be especially hectic, as does Burrell. Not long after the college season ends, in June, Lopez will be in the Caribbean for a meet, while Burrell will head for the Olympic trials in Sacramento. A couple of months later, the two men will head to Sydney, Australia, for the Olympics. Neither will get much TV time — the glamour is reserved for the stars, not the coaches — but that sort of business-as-usual is fine with them. “It’s a lot of work when you’re there, a lot of coordinating,” says Lopez “but it’s my job, and I try to make it fun. And if my athletes do well, then I feel real good.”

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