CARROLLTON, Texas – Most folks don't ask Tonja Buford-Bailey how she did it. When you've qualified for the Olympics twice before, that question long since was answered by the pre-eminent women's track athlete in Illinois history.
No, what people want to know is why?
Why come back after taking 17 months off from the sport for the birth of her first child? Why put your body through all the training tortures one more time in your late 20s for an uncertain payoff? Why risk proving the doubters right if you stumble short of your Olympic goal? Why risk leaving a regrettable last impression on what has been a sterling career?
"I've been asked that question a lot, and I was even wondering that myself, especially when I was struggling," Buford-Bailey said this week after qualifying for the 2000 Olympics. "I guess I just still have the desire for it. It must have been the internal desire."
That desire perhaps was never more in evidence than Monday night during the U.S. Olympic Trials in Sacramento, Calif. Having advanced to the finals in the 400-meter hurdles, the second-fastest female in the history of the event found herself in fifth place with two hurdles left.
With the top three finishers advancing to the Sydney Games, Buford-Bailey was in danger of seeing her Olympic quest torched. Earlier in her career, she might have panicked. Now, the 29-year-old hurdling veteran drew on years of experience to finish third.
"I stayed calm," said Buford-Bailey, whose time of 54.80 seconds was her fastest since the 1997 World Championships. "If I would have panicked, it would have been over."
There was no holding back Buford-Bailey's emotions at the conclusion of the race, however. This beaming mom proudly held 21-month-old Victor Bailey Jr. in her arms while soaking in the moment.
"It's awesome," Buford-Bailey said. "I'm glad I set (the Olympics) as a goal and accomplished it."
The journey had its obstacles. Foremost was the struggle to return to competitive form after a lengthy maternity leave.
Buford-Bailey was away from the sport since August 1997, when she and husband Victor Bailey decided it was time to start a family. At the time, she was ranked sixth in the world and two years removed from running the No. 2 time in her specialty (52.62) in women's history.
On Sept. 28, 1998, Victor Bailey Jr. was born. The next January, the former Illini took her first steps back onto the track.
"I didn't feel like I was finished," said Buford-Bailey, the 1995 World Championships silver medalist and 1996 Olympic bronze winner. "After sitting out, I started to miss it."
That initial enthusiasm collided with sobering reality. It took more than a year for Buford-Bailey to start resembling a world-class runner again.
Although the 10-time NCAA All-American qualified for the 1999 U.S. Outdoor Championships, she was unable to advance past the semifinals. Her best time that year – 58.29 – was a shadow of the clockings she was running before maternity leave.
"That was probably the roughest time," said Illini coach Gary Winckler, who continues to coach Buford-Bailey since her UI career ended in 1993. "She and I knew it wasn't going to be a year to make the World Championships, but we wanted her to get race experience and get some of the rust out of her system."
Buford-Bailey found almost no takers when she tried to line up meets that summer. Her agent at the time – she's hired a new one since – was of little help.
"We couldn't find anyone who would get her a race," Winckler said. "The people we needed to help her weren't there."
Winckler was, although much of his coaching and encouragement was from afar. Buford-Bailey needed to be home with her son in the Dallas area. Winckler had duties in Champaign. They stayed in touch by phone and e-mail, Winckler sending her a training itinerary each week.
"I never doubted that if Tonja applied herself, she could do it," he said. "The only doubt I ever had through the whole process was working long distance. The few other times I've tried it, it doesn't work very well at all."
Those doubts were erased when Buford-Bailey returned to the UI campus last spring. Winckler hadn't seen her in about six months. When he did, it was obvious Buford-Bailey ferociously tackled her training regimen.
"I think her fitness is the best it's ever been," Winckler said.
Still, Buford-Bailey's technique was – and still is – a work in progress after being away from hurdling for so long. When her times didn't come down as quickly as she hoped this winter and spring, she wondered if she could regain her world-class form.
"I had a lot of doubts," she said. "I was getting really nervous because I really wasn't running well in the beginning."
Other athletes and coaches in the sport doubted too, as Buford-Bailey and Winckler learned.
"I draw a parallel to what happened in '92," Winckler said. "Even some of her very best friends in the sport laughed at the idea of her making (the Olympics) as a junior in college. She used that as positive energy."
In June, Buford-Bailey achieved a breakthrough. At the Pontiac Grand Prix Invitational in Raleigh, N.C., she finished first in 55.60.
"I felt I was coming around," she said.
The acid test was the Olympic trials. Buford-Bailey immediately stamped herself as a serious contender by winning her preliminary heat in 55.64, the fourth-fastest time. A day later, she won her semifinal heat in 55.30.
Though victory eluded Buford-Bailey in the finals, she and 31-year-old runner-up Kim Batten pushed winner Sandra Glover to a trials-record 53.33.
"When you're talking about this level, you can't minimize the effect experience has," Winckler said. "There's a little different level of intensity in those kind of races, and you can't mimic it in practice.
"The times are different, the pace is faster, there's a tendency to want to go out faster ... so you see a lot of mistakes made. Having the experience of having gone through those things really makes a difference."
A list of athletes with local ties who have qualified for the 2000 Olympics on Sept. 15-Oct. 1 in Sydney, Australia:
Track and field
South Bend (Ind.) High
Urbana High, Illinois
Track and field
NOTE: Dickman is the daughter of Champaign resident Jim Dickman