Thurs, May 22: Pearman hopes not to make splash at Big Ten

Thurs, May 22: Pearman hopes not to make splash at Big Ten

   CHAMPAIGN  Take it from Barry Pearman: The water pit represents every steeplechaser''s worst nightmare.

   "The biggest skill you''ve got to have is the ability to go over that water pit without any fear," the University of Illinois senior said recently. "I think you have to be able to attack that water pit like you owned it."

   So far, knock on wood, Pearman has avoided taking the dreaded face-first tumble into the drink during his four seasons of running the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

   Avoided it long enough, in fact, that the Georgetown native admits to getting a tad nervous about his good fortune.

   "I honestly figured that this year was the year that I was going to take one, sooner or later," Pearman said, "because I have never really taken a bad spill over the water pit."

   Pearman was, however, in the vicinity of one nasty spill that''s being splashed across your television screen. In 1995, a local camera crew happened to capture on videotape then-Illini David Eckburg''s plummet into the pit at the UI Outdoor Track and Field Stadium.

   "It was hysterical because we had always talked about who was going to take the first nosedive that year," said Pearman, who also was caught on camera when Eckburg took his soggy plunge.

   The tape since has made its way onto a sports bloopers tape now being advertised on cable television.

   "We''d like to have that one," Pearman said. "It was kind of a memorable moment."

   But not nearly as memorable for Pearman as his performance in the steeplechase early this month in Stanford, Calif. Not only did the Illini senior break through the nine-minute barrier for the first time in his career, he smashed it with a clocking of 8:47.84.

   That time ranks 13th in the nation and third among Big Ten steeplechasers entering this weekend''s league championship meet at the UI.

   "I was really overjoyed," said Pearman, who ranks fifth on the all-time UI steeplechase list. "It was a long time coming."

   Breaking nine minutes was hardly uppermost in Pearman''s thoughts when he began training in the unfamiliar event as a freshman in 1994. Just making it over those hurdles without bloodying his shins  and clearing the 12-foot-long water pit without taking a pratfall  were more immediate concerns.

   "I didn''t especially like it," said the Georgetown-Ridge Farm graduate, whose high school specialty was the mile. "I had never touched a hurdle in any type of race until I got here. I think the first time I ran it, I ran like 10 minutes."

   But Pearman gradually got better at it, as Illini coach Gary Wieneke knew he would. Wieneke had the steeplechase in mind for Pearman all along when he offered the multisport standout a scholarship.

   "In my opinion, to be a great steepler, you have to be a great athlete," Wieneke said. "When we recruited him out of high school, I already was looking at him to be a steeplechaser because he was a great basketball player, and, of course, he had the cross-country and track. And generally, a great steeplechaser comes from the mile side."

   As Pearman learned immediately, however, the steeplechase was nothing like the mile. With the water pit and hurdles at five different spots on the track  including one in front of the pit  Pearman encountered physical and mental challenges beyond any he''d experienced in sport.

   "It was really hard to get adjusted to," he said. "It''s a race where you have to be thinking the entire time.

   "I had to concentrate very hard on my strategy and race tactics. I couldn''t go out and take a first lap in 60 (seconds), I couldn''t make a big bold move in the middle. Maintaining a rhythm is very important."

   And very tricky, Wieneke said, what with all the obstacles scattered around the track.

   "I think the most difficult thing about the steeplechase is the disrupted pace," the Illini coach said. "You''re not in flow. You''ve got to concentrate the entire time.

   "It takes a certain mentality to be able to do that. And it also takes a certain amount of athletic ability and strength."

   Pearman made encouraging progress in the steeplechase during his sophomore season, capped by a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten Championships. He also began seriously flirting with a sub-9-minute time, running a 9:05.71.

   Last season, Pearman made strides in seemingly every one of his events except the steeplechase. He placed second in the Big Ten indoor mile; set career bests in the indoor mile, indoor 3,000 and outdoor 3,000; and ran on Illinois'' All-America distance medley relay team.

   In the steeple, Pearman never lowered his personal record from the year before. And at the Big Ten meet that spring, he placed ninth.

   "The ninth place was really, really disappointing for me," Pearman said. "It made training over the summer a lot easier because I wanted to run harder."

   An off-season of hard work has been paying off throughout Pearman''s senior year. Last fall, he qualified for the NCAA cross-country meet for the first time. During the winter, Pearman finished second in the Big Ten mile and became an All-American a second time as the DMR unit placed fifth nationally in the second-fastest time (9:36.35) in UI history.

   And this spring, of course, he has emerged as one of the best in the nation in the steeplechase.

   During the next several weeks, Pearman will test himself against the best, starting with the Big Ten meet. When the steeplechasers line up late Saturday afternoon, the field will include three of the current top 13 in the nation: No. 1 Pascal Dobert of Wisconsin, who placed second in the NCAA meet last year; No. 8 John Mortimer of Michigan, the 1996 Big Ten runner-up to Dobert; and No. 13 Pearman.

   "This is probably the best depth of a steeplechase field that we have seen in recent years," Wieneke said of the Big Ten field.

   Unlike some others in the race, Pearman will be running his first event of the meet. A well-rested Pearman expects to have plenty in reserve should the pace dictate a hard push at the end.

   "With as many guys as there are in that race, people will double (events)," he said, "so I think it''s going to go out really slow, and I think it''s going to turn into a kicker''s race, which I will gladly take any day."

   Pearman''s also making travel plans for the NCAA steeplechase, which will be run in early June in Bloomington, Ind. He''s already provisionally qualified, and past NCAA steeplechase fields usually have numbered about 20.

   Four years ago, it''s a trip Pearman couldn''t have imagined making. Not for the steeplechase, anyway.

   "And now I feel it''s my event," he said, smiling at his change of attitude. "I feel it''s my best event in running  period."