CHAMPAIGN – Aspen Burkett hasn't felt this good since she was a high school junior.
And that can't be welcome news for rival sprinters who've seen what the University of Illinois junior can do even when pain's a persistent companion.
"Everything's fine now," Burkett assured this week.
Finally, she might have added.
When Burkett arrived at the UI in the fall of 1994, a sore back made an uninvited trip, too.
"It was such a severe injury in high school, and I never took the time in high school to let it heal properly," the Denver native said. "And once I came here and ran on it for a year, things just came from that."
Things like leg problems that apparently arose from adjusting her running form to accommodate the bad back.
Then, just when Burkett thought her injury woes were behind her entering last season, she began to experience pain in the arches of her feet. When the problem lingered, Burkett resisted the urge to battle through another injury and redshirted.
"(Coach) Gary (Winckler) and I decided, along with the trainers and doctors, that it would probably just be better that I take the time to let this heal and get everything else done," she said. "Because I really haven't had the time to do that because I don't like to sit out."
Burkett's time on the sidelines was made more bearable, however, because she wasn't alone. Four teammates also redshirted during the 1997 indoor and outdoor seasons. Then shot putter Collinus Newsome, a classmate of Burkett's, joined the group for the outdoor campaign.
Sitting out also was easier to take because of the knowledge that the Illini – with Burkett and three other sidelined All-Americans due back this year – were a powerhouse in waiting.
"It was kind of hard at the beginning because everybody was traveling, and I was still here," Burkett recalled. "But I think the main thing is, as a team we've focused on this year. We just looked at last year as a way for everybody to train and to get themselves together."
Despite her string of injuries, Burkett emerged as one of the best collegiate sprinters in the country before redshirting.
As a freshman, she swept the 100- and 200-meter titles at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships, then placed fifth in the 200 at the NCAA meet. The next season, Burkett successfully defended her Big Ten 200 crown and finished sixth nationally. She also helped the UI to two third-place national finishes in the outdoor 4x100 relay.
"She's a tremendously talented sprinter, and I think we're going to see that again this year," Winckler said. "Aspen has some top-end speed abilities which are really very, very good. The start and acceleration has never been her forte. But once she's up and running, she's a beautiful sprinter to watch running."
By the time Burkett had finished her last season at Denver East, she held U.S. high school records in the 50 meters, 50 yards and 55 meters. And the summer before entering the UI, Burkett won a silver medal in the 100 at the World Junior Championships in Portugal.
Such feats established Burkett as one of the most highly touted newcomers to the college scene. And Burkett has made her presence felt nationally by placing fourth in the 200 at the 1995 USA Championships and by reaching the 100 and 200 semis at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials.
Still, does Burkett ever wonder what might have been if she'd been completely injury-free?
"I don't ever look at it like that," she said. "Obviously, because of the injuries that I did have, my seasons probably didn't go as well as planned. But I did make several national teams and won (the 200) in the Big Ten both years that I competed, so I feel like I'm doing good.
"Besides, for me, track is much more than just the place that I come in. I feel better as a person. Because of track, I've gotten to go to Japan and Great Britain and Sweden. I've met so many people. I've experienced so many things that the average person wouldn't do.
"I've done exactly what I've wanted to do, with a few goals out there that I'd like to reach."
Such as winning the 200 and a team title at the NCAA Championships. Such as trying her hand in a few years at the Grand Prix pro circuit. Such as qualifying for the Olympics or again going to the World Championships.
"I don't see any reason why it shouldn't go just as planned as before (the injuries)," Burkett said. "I do feel that they'll come eventually."