UI sprinter Kelley wants to shed label at final outdoor meet

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Maybe it's time to reassess Benita Kelley's image.

You know, the one that portrays the University of Illinois senior as an indoor sprinting specialist who can't seem to translate that success to the outdoors.

Try selling that to Big Ten rivals who saw only the back of Kelley's heels late last month as she swept the 100- and 200-meter events at the conference outdoor meet.

"It was eating away at me," said Kelley, who entered with five Big Ten titles to her credit but none as an individual outdoors. "This being my last year, I wanted to have at least some type of title under my belt."

The fact that Kelley came away with two outdoor crowns, UI coach Gary Winckler said, should dispel the notion the diminutive Illini can't keep up in the longer sprint races.

"I think most people look at her as a 55- or 60-meter performer," said Winckler, referring to two events run only indoors. "But I thought going into the Big Ten meet that Benita would be really tough to beat in the 100 meters.

"And even if (teammate and 200-meter favorite) Aspen (Burkett) had been fortunate enough to not had the leg problems at Big Tens, I think Benita certainly would have given her all she could run for."

Starting today at State University of New York-Buffalo, Kelley makes one last run at polishing her NCAA outdoor image. She's finished third and fourth in the 55 at the NCAA indoor meet but never higher than seventh in the NCAA outdoor 100.

"She's never had quite the success at the outdoor nationals that she's had indoors," Winckler said. "This year, hopefully, that might be a little different.

"Benita has had some of her best workout performances in the last two weeks outdoors that I've ever recorded for her. So she's ready to run well."

Since arriving at the UI four years ago, Kelley has distinguished herself with quick and powerful starts out of the blocks. It's a trait that long has given her an edge in the shortest of sprints.

"Her start really has been one of her strengths," Winckler said.

But the longer the sprint, the more time rivals have to catch the Greenville, S.C., native. For Kelley, the most important part of a 100 or 200 race may not be the start but how she performs midway through the longer sprints.

"I've been working hard on my technique for the middle part of the race," she said. "That way, I won't die out before the end. If you don't continue to keep that stride, your whole entire race falls apart."

Winckler is quick to note Kelley's value to the Illini runs far beyond the individual sprints. In fact, his highest praise for Kelley is reserved for her remarkable knack for giving Illinois' 4x100 relay team the lead.

Kelley has been the leadoff runner on two third-place 4x100 units at previous NCAA outdoor meets. And she'll serve the same role this week as the Illini 4x100 goes for another All-America finish.

"She's probably been the best leadoff leg I've ever had in the 4x100 relay," said Winckler, in his 16th season as a college head coach. "She's probably the best in the country.

"I've never seen anybody beat her on the first leg of a 4x100."

Even when Illinois' lane position puts her at a disadvantage?

"Usually, she makes up staggers on people," Winckler said. "She's very, very good in that position."

Good, too, at keeping high praise in perspective.

If there's one thing Kelley has learned in four years of collegiate track, she said, it's that every runner must prove herself all over with each new race.

"I still have to focus," she said. "I still have to relax within my race. And not worry about who has run faster than me.

"All I try to do is my best, and whatever happens, happens."

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