Illini going places
CHAMPAIGN – Back in August, the Latimers loaded up the car and drove east. Far east.
By the time Aleisha, Thelma and Edward Latimer stopped, the trip odometer read 1,012.3 miles. Give or take a few.
As the shadows of the Rocky Mountains turned into the bland nothingness of central Kansas, Aleisha Latimer didn't wonder "What I am doing?" The nation's top high school sprinter in 1997 had no doubts the University of Illinois was the place for her.
"I felt pretty good about it," Latimer said. "It was different."
She wasn't the first to make the drive to Illinois from the land of John Elway, just the latest. UI women's track coach Gary Winckler has mined the Rockies for several top athletes.
It started in 1987, when Victoria Fulcher joined the Illini. Back home, Fulcher was part of the Colorado Flyers track club, coached by Tony Wells.
"He looks favorably on our program," Winckler said of Wells. "We have a proven reputation with that club."
Wells liked that Fulcher improved at Illinois. She became an Illini standout in both the 400 meters and 400 hurdles. Another Coloradan, Dawn Riley, holds Illinois' top marks in the 100 hurdles and triple jump. Latimer is 1 of 5 Illini from Colorado.
"It's more like home when they come here," Winckler said.
Well, not exactly. Latimer hasn't mistaken Champaign-Urbana for Colorado Springs.
"I liked how pretty it was, how nice the summers were," Latimer said. "I miss it. I talk to my parents too many times in a week. Probably three or four times a week. They pay the bill."
Latimer's schedule is too packed for her to worry about being homesick. Practice, class, studying, eating and sleeping keep her occupied.
Going into this weekend's Big Ten indoor meet, Latimer has been everything Winckler expected. She has Illinois' top times in the 55 meters and 200, events she'll run in the Big Ten meet.
"She was a national high school record-holder, so you expect a person of that ability and experience to step in as a collegiate athlete and perform near the top right away," Winckler said.
The expectations haven't bothered Latimer. She just runs.
"I don't think she listens to a lot of the trash talk out there from other people," Winckler said. "She's pretty level headed. We just prepare to do the things we're doing here and let the performances take care of themselves."
Latimer already has qualified in the 55 for the NCAA indoor meet. She has a provisional time in the 200.
"I think I'm doing pretty well," Latimer said. "I haven't had any real injuries. I've been real blessed so far this year."
Latimer joined a talented group of Illini sprinters. Fellow Coloradan Aspen Burkett is competing this season after redshirting in 1997. She has the team's second-best time in the 200 and is third in the 55. Benita Kelly is a returning All-American who placed fourth in the 55 at last year's NCAA indoor meet.
Illinois' history under Winckler is filled with top sprinters. Latimer has a chance to be better than the rest.
"She probably has the best potential in terms of physical tools of any sprinter I've ever worked with," said Winckler, in his 13th year as UI coach. "She's a tremendous talent. We're kind of in no rush to really let it all happen."
Olympic sprinters hit their prime at 26 or 27. At 18, Latimer already has run in an international meet, reaching the semifinals in the 60 dash at the World indoor meet.
At the 1996 Atlanta Games, Tonja Buford-Bailey became the first former Illini to win an Olympic medal. Winckler said it's too early to tell if Latimer might represent Illinois in the 2000 Sydney Games.
"We don't talk about it much," Winckler said. "She doesn't want to look beyond what she's doing right now. The potential is definitely there."