CHAMPAIGN – Bobby True is used to the stares. Kind of likes them, actually.
The Illinois junior knows his Big Ten rivals wouldn't bother playing mind games with him if he were any old face in the 800-meter crowd.
"It's fun going into the warmup area, catching looks from everyone, everyone trying to stare you down," the two-time conference champion said Wednesday. "It's kind of like you smile at them, tell them, 'You've got to come get me. You can give me the stare; now you've got to come get me.' "
They'll get another chance this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, when True takes aim at his third straight Big Ten 800 title. If the Glenbard West graduate has his way, there'll be five crowns in his collection by the time his UI career ends next spring.
"I want every Big Ten championship in the 8 from here on out," True said. "My mentality is I don't like to lose."
That much was obvious to UI coach Gary Wieneke during True's freshman season. When the Illini newcomer came in second in a Big Ten preliminary heat, True was infuriated.
"I told him, 'You qualified. That's the object of a qualifying run is to qualify,' " Wieneke said. "That was the first indication we had of his competitive instincts. He's a fierce competitor."
True may need every bit of that ferocity this weekend to retain his title. Although he enters with the best time of 1 minute, 47.58 seconds, four others in the league have run the race in less than 1:49 this spring. Barring late changes, the field will include two-time NCAA indoor mile champion Kevin Sullivan of Michigan and Penn State's Joe Loner, the last rival to beat True in the Big Ten 800.
"There's been some years the defending champion and/or the event leader has been a shoo-in," Wieneke said. "The depth of the 800 this year, that's a pretty tough, competitive field."
Even if the competitors and the times weren't so impressive, True still would be wary. The sting of a narrow loss to Loner in the 1997 Big Ten indoor meet – 0.08 second was the margin – remains fresh.
"When I go to the Big Ten meets now, I'm always suspicious who's going to be the one to step up that day and spoil my party," he said.
Certainly little has happened in 1998 to spoil True's disposition. During the indoor season, he:
– ran the fastest 600 meters in UI history in his third try at the race;
– won the Big Ten 800, a victory made sweeter because Loner finished second;
– not only qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time as an individual, but finished third in the 800.
And the outdoor campaign should have made True believers of any remaining skeptics. After running his fastest time ever in the 800 (1:48.28) at the Drake Relays in April, True popped off the sixth-fastest time in UI history (1:47.58) Saturday at a meet in Los Angeles.
"It's been amazing," True said. "I wouldn't trade this season for any one in the past. From the start of the season, I've done everything I've wanted to. Maybe not so much in the outdoor season so far, but indoors was marvelous."
Of course, the best the outdoor season has to offer is yet to come, with the NCAA Championships after this weekend's Big Ten shootout. True provisionally qualified for the NCAAs with his clocking last weekend.
As he discovered on his last NCAA trip, there's no reason to think small, even in the national meet. En route to his third-place finish, True found himself mixing it up with two-time indoor champion David Krummenacker of Georgia Tech.
"It was great to get in there and bump elbows with him," True said. "It takes experiences like that to realize that you don't have to be a superman to win the race."
What it takes, Wieneke said, is combining tactical know-how with speed and strength. True always has had the latter two qualities in abundance. This year, the UI coach said, True has mastered the mental sparring.
"I think he used to just get adrenalized and go run on brute strength and will power," Wieneke said. "And I think now he's matured into being very sound with tactics also. Probably that's the biggest improvement."
True's tactic of choice always will be to bide his time through the first half of the race, then make an explosive move. He can do it other ways, too, as he proved last weekend in make a late charge to victory. But in a meet like the Big Ten Championships, where True has an established reputation, he figures a midrace bolt might be the way to go.
"It's going to hurt them physically because then they might not be able to make that move with you until a second or two later when they see what's happening and then react," True said. "Then it's a mental thing. They're going in knowing on paper I'm better and I just made this big break, and they're probably thinking, 'That's why he's probably better than me. That's why I'm not going to catch him.' "
What: The 98th men's and 17th women's Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
When: Friday through Sunday.
Where: Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
Defending team champions: men – Wisconsin; women – Wisconsin.
Illinois' 1997 team finishes: men – fourth; women – tied for seventh.
Illinois' defending champions: men – Bobby True (800 meters), 4x100 relay team; women – Yvonne Harrison (400 hurdles), Tisha Ponder (long jump).
UI men's outlook: Since 1993, the Illini have not failed to finish among the top four. The streak appears safe if the sprinters, middle-distance runners and relays come through. With help in the field events, Illinois may contend for its first title since 1994. Three Illini enter with the Big Ten's top performances of the spring: Sherman Armstrong in the 200, Bobby True in the 800 and Joe Knuffman in the long jump.
UI women's outlook: Look for the Illini to get back in the title hunt after sagging last year without a number of standouts who were redshirting. This time, Illinois will have, among others, 1996 Big Ten outdoor champions Aspen Burkett (200), Collinus Newsome (shot put) and Kerry Ann Richards (100). Newsome, a junior, has won all six Big Ten Championship shot put events she's entered. The Illini enter with the Big Ten's top times of the season in the 4x100 and 4x400 relays.