Illinois star hurdler Armstrong wasn''t always tops in his own family

Illinois star hurdler Armstrong wasn''t always tops in his own family

   CHAMPAIGN  If her brother someday climbs the Olympic medal stand, Shalanda Armstrong will be able to smile and say, "I used to beat him."

   During his freshman year at Chicago Luther South, Sherman Armstrong''s older sister introduced him to the hurdles.

   Shalanda Armstrong didn''t just teach her brother the tricks of the race. She showed him by streaking to the finish line first on the cinder track.

   "It was always a big deal," Sherman Armstrong said. "She let me know when she beat me. She threw it in my face around the house."

   The early losses to his older sister didn''t bother Armstrong''s confidence. He became so good at the event that he was a state champion his senior year. His dominant performance in Charleston drew the attention of the Illinois coaches.

   Three years later, Armstrong is one of the stars of the team. Already a five-time Big Ten champion, he''ll try for three more victories this weekend in the indoor championships at Bloomington, Ind.

   Armstrong will be a heavy favorite in the 60-meter hurdles. He''ll also run the 200 and a leg of the 1,600 relay.

   The junior is hoping Illinois can make a run at the team title. It finished second in 1999 behind Michigan State.

   "We''re going to have to shock some people," Armstrong said.

   Armstrong might not be at Illinois without the help of Shalanda. She showed him the proper form to clear the hurdles.

   "Everything has got to be tight," Armstrong said. "You don''t want to be wild when you''re clearing the hurdles. She''s the main one who got me started. I took a liking to it."

   Two years older than Sherman, Shalanda still offers him pointers. She watches tapes of her brother.

   "She might say, ''You need to tighten up your arms. Get your legs down quicker,'' " Sherman Armstrong said.

   Armstrong is more than willing to listen, which might explain his rise at Illinois. Associate head coach Willie Williams said Armstrong''s work ethic rivals the best athletes he has trained.

   "He''s a dedicated guy," Williams said. "He loves extra."

   Armstrong will get plenty of extra training in the spring and summer. He has already qualified in the 400 hurdles for the U.S. Olympic trials. The meet will be held July 14-23 at Sacramento, Calif.

   Beat the nation''s best and Armstrong will be spending two weeks in Sydney, host of the Olympics.

   "It''s good to get the experience, be around professional track runners and see what they do," Armstrong said. "I believe I can (make it). I''ve got to concentrate and follow the workouts with the coach (Williams)."

   Williams will happily make the mid-September trip to Sydney to watch Armstrong run.

   Realistically, the 2004 Olympics are a stronger possibility for Armstrong, who turns 22 in September.

   First, he has goals left at Illinois. Armstrong wants to keep piling up his Big Ten titles and add an NCAA championship or two. He almost fell in the 400 hurdles at the ''99 NCAA outdoor meet and failed to reach the finals.

   Armstrong promises to be better at this year''s meet.

   "I was looking and seeing what other people were doing," Armstrong said. "Now, I have a different outlook on it. Hopefully, people will be looking at me. I''ll be more relaxed."

   The school record-holder in the 60 hurdles, Armstrong has provisionally qualified for the NCAA indoor meet in the event. He also has qualifying times in 200, 400 and 1,600 relay.

   He won''t run his favorite event until the spring. The 400 hurdles wouldn''t work real well on a 200-meter track.

   "You have to have everything right," Armstrong said. "It is grueling. It''s usually the last straightaway that really gets you. You got to be really be in shape and on your game to finish strong in that race."

   If Armstrong doesn''t finish strong, his sister Shalanda will be there to remind him.



   What: Big Ten Indoor Track Championships

   Where: Minneapolis

   When: Saturday-Sunday

   Defending champion: Michigan

   Illinois'' 99 finish: Sixth

   Illini outlook: Gary Winckler''s team tries to return to the league''s upper division. Last year, the Illini finished out of the top five for the first time in Winckler''s 14 years. Sprinters Kerry Ann Richards and Aleisha Latimer will be counted on after finishing first and second, respectively, in the 60 meters last year. Miler Tara Mendozza has the second-best time in the Big Ten this season. Tisha Ponder has the second-best marks in both the long jump and triple jump. Only Wisconsin has more Big Ten indoor titles than Illinois. Adding to its five won''t be easy for Winckler''s team.


   What: Big Ten Indoor Track Championships

   Where: Bloomington, Ind.

   When: Saturday-Sunday

   Defending champion: Michigan State

   Illinois'' 99 finish: Second

   Illini outlook: It all starts with Sherman Armstrong, who will run three events. He''ll be a heavy favorite to repeat as 60-meter hurdles champion. He is also entered in the 200 (not his favorite event) and the 1,600 relay. Sprinter Babatunde Ridley has the third-fastest Big Ten time in the 60 dash and is a key part of the powerful relay team. Freshman Brandon Lloyd, who had a breakout season as a football wide receiver, is having an impact on the track team too. He went 6-111/2 in the high jump, the third-best effort in school history. Gary Wieneke''s team is trying to win its first title since ''89. Deep and talented, it isn''t out of the question that the school will gain its 22nd championship, second in Big Ten history behind Michigan''s 26.