Second Wind: Buford-Bailey headed back to Olympics

Second Wind: Buford-Bailey headed back to Olympics

   SACRAMENTO, Calif.  Tonja Buford-Bailey was never particularly fond of the 400-meter hurdles anyway. In the early 1990s, Illinois coach Gary Winckler had to sell her on the idea it would become her best event.

   So after she gave birth to a son in 1998, she didn''t hear only the baby''s cries. She heard the critics who said her track career was over, that she wouldn''t reclaim motivation or running rhythm.

   Kim Batten, the world record-holder who is both Buford-Bailey''s rival and friend, heard uncertainty in the voice on the other end of the telephone.

   "I told her, ''Tonja, don''t listen to what people say. Just come back,'' "

Batten said. "You still have it in your heart and still have it in your guts.'' "

   Now, the United States still has Tonja Buford-Bailey on its Olympic track team. Her charge down the stretch Monday night at the U.S. trials earned third place and a third Olympic berth.

   Sandra Glover was first, setting an Olympic trials record of 53.33 seconds. Not only did she run the fastest time in the world this year, she beat the two fastest women ever in the event.

   It was at the 1995 World Championships that Batten (52.61) and Buford-Bailey (52.62) won gold and silver medals. On Monday, they showed their mettle.

   Batten, who hadn''t competed in more than a year because of foot injuries, was second in 54.70. Buford-Bailey''s time was 54.80, her fastest since the 1997 World Championships.

   Joanna Hayes was fourth in 54.97. Former Illini Yvonne Harrison was sixth in 55.63.

   The United States is sending a veteran trio to the Sydney Olympics. Glover and Batten are 31, and Buford-Bailey 29.

   Buford-Bailey, in fifth place with two hurdles left, said she started to panic. Then she told herself to forget about style and stride pattern.

   Just go.

   "I stopped thinking and started running," she said.

   Harrison, 24, won''t stop running because of this disappointment. She was happy for Buford-Bailey, her training partner, and didn''t complain about running out of lane 1, which has sharp turns.

   "The good thing about it is, I''m still young," said Harrison, a physical education teacher at Edison Middle School. "Everything has gone right this year.

I can''t hold my head down. It''s something I have to get over and come back next year."

   Buford-Bailey will be the first Illini to compete in three Olympics since pole vaulter Bob Richards, who won a bronze medal in 1948 and golds in 1952 and 1956. Craig Virgin was a three-time Olympian at 10,000 meters but missed the 1980 Moscow Games because of a U.S. boycott.

   The hurdler''s third Olympic trials were unlike the previous two. In 1992, Buford-Bailey was a college junior and "just hoping," she said. In 1996, she was coming of a spectacular season and went on to win a bronze medal behind Batten''s silver.

   "This, I just didn''t know what was going to happen," Buford-Bailey said. "My fitness is really good right now. I''m just really race rusty. It''s going to take me these next two months to get where I need to be in Sydney."

   Her son, Victor Bailey Jr., turns 2 on Sept. 28  the day after the Olympic final. Buford-Bailey, native of Dayton, Ohio, lives in Dallas with husband Victor Bailey, a retired NFL player.

   Glover (nee Cummings) had an ordinary career at the University of Houston and has ranked in the top 10 in the United States since 1991. Not until last year, when she lowered her time to 53.65 and placed fifth in the World Championships, did she emerge on the international scene.

   The previous fastest time in 2000 was 53.53 by Nezha Bidouane of Morocco. That''s not the time Glover is aiming at.

   "Sorry, Kim. That record is going down," the former preschool teacher said with uncharacteristic brashness.

   "Oh, man. We''ve never had that kind of controversy in this event," Buford-Bailey responded.

   Batten graciously replied that it was time for her world record to go. Having Buford-Bailey back should help, Batten added.

   "When it comes to competition, having Tonja in the race . . . it''s been seen for many years that fast times come about when Tonja is in the race," Batten said.

   "It''s a joy to have her back."