When Tonja Buford-Bailey has run in track's marquee events – the Olympics, world championships, U.S. nationals – the former University of Illinois All-American could always count on her coach to be there for her.
Problem was, Gary Winckler couldn't always get to his prized hurdler.
When U.S. track and field teams hit the road, training tracks and living quarters typically are off-limits to all but the athletes themselves and the official coaching staff. Which has meant they were off-limits to Buford-Bailey's personal coach, Winckler. Which, in turn, has meant missed opportunities for the Illini women's track coach to pass along advice that Buford-Bailey would have welcomed.
"It's very difficult," Winckler said recently. "The U.S. does very little ... to enable coaches to have access, as opposed to other countries."
It's a battle Winckler's been fighting – and losing – for years with USA Track and Field, the sport's governing body in this country. It's also a battle the veteran coach won't have to wage when Buford-Bailey begins competition next week in the World Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Athens, Greece. Because he's the head coach of the U.S. women's team for this meet, Winckler can call Buford-Bailey over for a strategy session or to make a suggestion any time he wishes.
And no one's happier about the arrangement than Buford-Bailey, who's hit a few bumps this year in the road leading to Athens and welcomes all the help she can get.
"This is just a blessing for me," Buford-Bailey said from her home in Dallas before leaving for Greece. "I'm definitely going to need his support. If I see that he's confident, I'll be confident.
"He was there (at the world championships and Olympics) in '95 and '96, but this is better because we're not going to have problems with him getting into the facilities and coaching areas."
Said Winckler: "It'll have benefits. We'll be able to talk a little more freely when we need to instead of making arrangements or doing it by phone.
"It's going to be a luxury in a major championship I've never had before. The downside is that (as head coach) I'll have a little less time to keep track of Tonja, but I think the benefits offset the drawbacks."
Their relationship goes back to 1989, when Buford-Bailey enrolled at the UI and embarked on a collegiate career that would make her the most decorated Illini women's track athlete in history. By the time she was finished in the spring of 1993, Buford-Bailey had racked up 10 All-America awards, a record 25 Big Ten Conference individual and relay titles, and the 1992 NCAA outdoor title in the 400-meter hurdles.
It's a relationship that has continued to thrive through two Olympics and two previous world championships. During her postcollegiate career,Buford-Bailey has won world championship silver, Olympic bronze and run the second-fastest time ever (52.62) in the 400 hurdles. She also was the first woman ever to break 53 seconds in the 400 hurdles more than once.
But this year has been a struggle for Buford-Bailey, beginning with the flare-up of an old ankle injury that kept her off the Grand Prix circuit during the indoor season. The down time was discouraging enough. Knowing that she was falling far behind her top rivals in training was almost more than Buford-Bailey could bear.
"I was just in a state of panic," the Dayton, Ohio, native said. "I wasn't able to train for almost two months. And when I started back, I wasn't having so much pain, but I was so far behind that I was just a mess."
Buford-Bailey's fears were calmed when she returned to competition April 12 in theTexas-El Paso Invitational. Her time was about the same as it had been one year earlier. Same story when Buford-Bailey traveled in mid-May to Eugene, Ore., for the Prefontaine Classic.
"So I seemed to be on pace," she said.
That same month, Buford-Bailey returned to Champaign so Winckler could directly supervise her training.
"She knew she needed to get some work done," Winckler said. "We tried to close the gap. We just went to work. We had six to seven weeks before the (national) championships to get ready."
It didn't help that two Grand Prix events in the United States during May were canceled. Buford-Bailey had been counting on those high-quality meets to ready her for the U.S. nationals. Now she didn't know where she stood going into what also would serve as the U.S. qualifying meet for the world championships.
"I was really, really nervous," Buford-Bailey said.
Unnecessarily so, as it turned out. She performed well, placing first in both her preliminary and semifinal heats, then turning in a 54.05-second clocking. On other days, that might have been good enough to contend for first place. Instead, Buford-Bailey was a decided runner-up to Kim Batten, who popped off a 52.97 that was the eighth-fastest time ever in the 400 hurdles.
"She ran well considering the lack of racing preparation she had," Winckler said of Buford-Bailey. "It was a good time for the number of races she had to prepare. Batten had been to Europe for six or seven races, and we knew where she would be (in her preparation)."
Buford-Bailey headed to Europe herself afterward and ran in four Grand Prix meets there. Although she didn't win any, she placed second three times.
"Each time she got a little bit better," Winckler said.
With the world championships up next, Buford-Bailey is eager to be a lot better. To be good enough to actually win it this time after finishing a minuscule 0.01 second behind Batten when both broke the world record in this same meet in '95.
Buford-Bailey concedes that her '97 performance to this point doesn't suggest such a victory. Batten and Jamaica's Deon Hemmings, the defending Olympic champion, both enter with stronger credentials. But neither will have any stronger resolve, Buford-Bailey promises.
"I'm not going in this thing to get a medal," said the former Illini, whose preliminary race is Tuesday. "I'm still going in this to win. That's just my nature, and regardless of how Batten and Hemmings have run, I feel I can still beat them.
"I have to have that attitude, or what's the point of going?"
Former Illini reach highest level
As many as four former Illini could take part in the World Outdoor Track and Field Championships that open today.
The U.S. team includes men's pole vaulter Dean Starkey and women's 400-meter hurdler Tonja Buford-Bailey. Middle distance runner Marko Koers will represent his native Netherlands. And Celena Mondie-Milner is an alternate on the U.S. women's 4x100 relay.
This will be Starkey's third world championships. The two-time NCAA indoor champion placed eighth in the 1995 worlds at Goteborg, Sweden, and did not qualify for the finals in the 1993 worlds at Stuttgart, Germany.
Starkey earned a third trip to worlds by placing second in the U.S. nationals in June at Indianapolis. Starkey, who competed for Illinois in 1986-89, cleared 19 feet, 2 1/4 inches in that meet.
Qualifying in the pole vault begins Aug. 8.
Koers also competed in the '93 and '95 world championships, running the 800 meters in both but failing to make the finals either time.
Koers, a three-time NCAA champion, is entered in the 800 and 1,500 for this world meet, but it's uncertain whether he will run both. The preliminaries of the 1,500 are Sunday, with the semifinals Monday. Because the preliminaries of the 800 also are Monday, Koers likely wouldn't enter that event if he chose to run the 1,500 and then advanced.
Koers, who completed his UI career in 1996, placed seventh in the 1,500 in the 1996 Olympics at Atlanta.
Mondie-Milner, an 18-time All-American for the UI in 1987-90, also is a world championships veteran. In 1995, she ran on the U.S. gold medal 4x100 relay and reached the semifinals in the 100 and 200.