Harrison following in footsteps of UI standout hurdlers

Harrison following in footsteps of UI standout hurdlers

CHAMPAIGN  When Yvonne Harrison''s track career took an unexpected detour, she decided to follow in some formidable footsteps.

Three years later, the University of Illinois senior is on course to take her place with hurdles greats Tonja Buford-Bailey and Tonya Williams.

"When (UI coach) Gary (Winckler) tells me I''m just as good or even better than Tonja and Tonya, it''s hard for me to digest it all," Harrison said. "I''m just grateful to be a part of this tradition."

It''s a tradition as rich as any in UI athletic annals. Buford-Bailey, the 1992 NCAA champion in the 400-meter hurdles, has gone on to win silver medals in that event in the Olympics and World Championships. Williams was the NCAA 400 hurdles champ in 1995 and ''96, setting a meet record the latter year.

Now Harrison is proving herself a worthy successor, last spring extending the UI''s streak of Big Ten victories in the 400 hurdles to seven.

"Last year, winning, it meant so much to me," Harrison said. "I definitely wanted to follow in that tradition."

The Bronx, N.Y., native initially turned down that opportunity, electing to sign with the University of Texas after leaving Lehman High School as the top-ranked prep in the nation in the 300 hurdles.

But when Harrison was unable to meet NCAA requirements on the SAT, she was forced to start her collegiate career at a junior college and chose powerhouse Odessa (Texas) College.

While Harrison was helping Odessa to a national title in 1994, then-Illini assistant coach Ron Garner was making it clear to her early and often that the UI still was interested.

Harrison, no longer so committed to the idea of staying in Texas, lent an attentive and appreciative ear.

"I figured here''s somebody who''s been there for me no matter what I''ve been through," Harrison said. "I decided this is the right place for me."

Before Harrison graduated from Odessa, her career hit another bump in the road. A serious hamstring injury sidelined the then-sophomore for all of 1995. Odessa''s loss, however, was Illinois'' gain. By redshirting that season, Harrison arrived at the UI the following school year with three seasons of eligibility.

An avid follower of the track scene, Harrison was aware of Buford-Bailey''s background and exploits. She also had firsthand knowledge of the hurdling prowess of then-Illini senior Williams. It was Williams who handed Harrison her first defeat ever, in the 1992 U.S. Junior National Championships.

"I knew Tonja was one of the best in the world and Tonya was the best in college," Harrison said. "I definitely wanted to follow in their footsteps."

In her first year at the UI, Harrison literally did so where Williams was concerned. While Williams was winning the 1996 Big Ten 400 hurdles, the Odessa transfer was right behind her in second place.

Last year, it was Harrison''s turn to carry on the tradition of conference titles in the event. And when she had done just that, training partner Williams was among the first to offer congratulations. The first to remind Harrison, too, that this title was hers to defend.

"She said, ''You know, you still have another year left,'' " Harrison recalled.

It already has been a record-setting year for the Illini senior. But not in the event you might expect. During the indoor campaign, Winckler gave Harrison a shot at the 400 meters, and she responded with a victory in the Big Ten Championships. Six days later, Harrison broke an 8-year-old UI record in the event by finishing in 53.80 seconds.

"I remember Gary saying, ''Well, we finally found out af-ter three years what yourevent was indoors,'' " Harrison said.

There''s never been any doubt about what Harrison does best during the outdoor season. In most aspects of the 400 hurdles, Winckler said, Harrison is on a par with Buford-Bailey and Williams at a similar stage in their careers.

"And she measures up better in some others," Winckler said, specifically mentioning Harrison''s quick starts toward the first hurdle.

Harrison achieved a significant breakthrough in technique this season, Winckler said, when she became comfortable with using either leg as the lead leg in clearing hurdles.

"That had kind of been an obstacle for Yvonne," said Winckler, recalling Buford-Bailey and Williams also had to overcome a reliance on leading with their right leg. "When they learned to hurdle with both, they were able to make some big breakthroughs."

For Harrison, the next big breakthrough would be making her presence felt in her specialty at the national level. A ninth-place finish in the 400 hurdles at the 1997 NCAA Championships remains a disappoint-ing memory for the Illini senior.

"I really wasn''t focused mentally for that race," Harrison said. "This year is going to be different. My goal is to be in the top three."

Her goal for the Big Ten Championships later this month, of course, goes without saying. Not that defending champ Harrison is taking anything for granted. Iowa''s Wynsome Cole, for one, figuresto be a formidable challeng-er.

But Harrison is approaching the postseason on a roll. She''s won every 400 hurdles race she''s run this spring by a minimum of 2 seconds. She''s coming off a season-best 57.79 clocking last weekend in Knoxville, Tenn., an eyelash off her career best of 57.71. And perhaps most importantly, the hamstring problem that has been chronic since her days in Odessa hardly is noticeable now, Harrison said.

"I''m practicing really well,in fact better than I have inthe past couple years," Har-rison said. "So I have the con-fidence in myself right now, and I have confidence in Gary, and I think that''s all Ineed."