Ex-Illini Buford-Bailey attempting a rebirth

Ex-Illini Buford-Bailey attempting a rebirth

DALLAS – Tonja Buford-Bailey once viewed hurdler Sandra Farmer-Patrick as a rival.

Now the two-time Olympian from Illinois sees Farmer-Patrick as a role model.

As Farmer-Patrick did earlier this decade, Buford-Bailey interrupted her track career last year to start a family. As the former Illini embarks on the comeback trail, Farmer-Patrick and others offer reassuring proof that world-class careers can be reborn after giving birth.

"Gwen Torrence and Evelyn Ashford did real well after becoming mothers," Buford-Bailey said. "Sandra Patrick-Farmer, in my event, is another one. If I didn't have any examples of that, I would be really frustrated right now because I'm not close to where I used to be."

Where Buford-Bailey used to be was on the medal stands of the 1995 World Championships and the 1996 Olympics after winning a silver and a bronze, respectively.

Where Buford-Bailey is now is taking baby steps toward regaining the form that once made her the second-fastest woman in the history of the 400-meter hurdles. The form that made her the first woman to twice break the 53-second mark.

"It's kind of like starting over," Buford-Bailey said. "I didn't do any training while I was pregnant. I was so sick: bad nausea, vomiting. I was bed-ridden for about a month."

After giving birth to Victor Bailey Jr. on Sept. 28, 1998, the 10-time All-American resumed serious training in February.

"I couldn't wait to start running, just jogging, anything," Buford-Bailey said.

She was off the track since August 1997, when an Achilles' tendon injury that's dogged her since '94 flared up again. After deciding to call it a season, Buford-Bailey extended the layoff upon learning that she and husband Victor, a former NFL wide receiver, were parents-to-be.

"It's been almost two years," Buford-Bailey said of her absence from competition.

While quick learner Victor Jr. is on the verge of walking under his own power any day now, Mom has stutter-stepped through her comeback. In April, Buford-Bailey's Achilles' tendon balked again at the demands she put on it.

"The first couple weeks (back) I was real cautious and started really slow," she said. "After that I felt really good ... and then I went into full throttle, and that may have caused some problems.

"I've always trained really hard, so it's kind of difficult for me to go slow at anything."

Despite being sidelined a month by the latest Achilles' flare-up, the Nike-sponsored hurdler went through with her scheduled return at the Prefontaine Classic late last month in Eugene, Ore.

"I did horribly," said Buford-Bailey, who finished seventh in an eight-hurdler field in 1:00.22. "I didn't have my stride pattern down."

Given her extended absence from competition, Buford-Bailey has tried to keep the Prefontaine performance in perspective.

"I'm going to have to take some bumps," Buford-Bailey said. "Just like the hurdles, there are going to be obstacles. But it's OK because I feel I have to go back through this stage to get to where I want to be."

It helps that she's not going through her comeback alone. Illini coach Gary Winckler, a guiding force since Buford-Bailey showed up in fall 1989 at the UI, supplies her with weekly workout instructions and encouragement.

And former Illini hurdler Yvonne Harrison is training with Buford-Bailey after earlier spending two weeks in Dallas for shared workouts.

"Gary suggested it," Buford-Bailey said. "He knew how important it is for somebody to actually run with someone."

Later this week, the two former Illini will run with a Who's Who of this country's female hurdlers. Each is entered in the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene. Buford-Bailey was "grandfathered" into the meet based on her past accomplishments.

The last time she ran in the USA Championships, in 1997, the four-time Big Ten Track and Field Athlete of the Year won the silver. This time, Buford-Bailey and her coach gladly will settle for respectable progress.

"Before the Achilles' set her back, we really had planned to be up to full competitive speed this summer," Winckler said. "Our plan in March was to be in the top four or five by this summer. With this setback, we'll just take it one round at a time."

And one meet at a time. Buford-Bailey is eager to get more races under her belt, even if it means traveling abroad this summer.

"I'll probably have to go to Europe just because I have an established name there," she said.

All in the name of establishing herself again as an Olympic force. Buford-Bailey sees no reason she can't do so, too, by the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

"Slowly but surely, I'm getting my rhythm back," she said. "If I take this year slow and do what needs to get done, there's no way I can't not make the Olympics next year and get a medal."

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