Coming to America no big hurdle for Swedish twins
CHAMPAIGN – The Swedish media apparently isn't shy about dipping deep into its pockets.
At least when it comes to covering the overseas exploits of two of the country's brightest track and field prospects.
Since Susanna and Jenny Kallur arrived in January on Illinois' campus, at least four sets of journalists from Sweden have followed to report on the progress of the identical twins. This weekend a Swedish TV crew is scheduled to be at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, for the same purpose.
Kind of surprising?
"Yeah," Susanna said. "It's not so cheap to fly all the way here."
Their adopted coach has another take on the long-distance media blitz.
"I think they're keeping an eye on me more than the girls, just to make sure things are going to work here," Illini women's track coach Gary Winckler said.
Winckler's comment wasn't completely tongue-in-check.
Through experience, European track federations and fans have reason to be watchful. In their quest for collegiate titles and medals, some U.S. coaches have been accused of leaving Europe's best and brightest with little in their tanks by the time they return home. That's not a welcome development on a continent that stages its most important national and international track meets in the summer.
"It's a big debate over in Sweden," Jenny Kallur said.
Little wonder, then, that the Kallurs – who've emerged as rising stars on the Swedish track scene – met resistance at home to coming here.
Pressure to stay home
"There was a lot of pressure for them not to leave Sweden and come to the U.S.," Winckler said. "A lot of U.S colleges have the reputation of bringing foreign students in, running them real hard in the collegiate season and sending them home.
"And their season at home is supposed to begin in June and go through August. And then they're not able to fill out their national obligations because they're just too tired."
The Kallurs' parents had no such objection. Anders and Lisa Kallur liked the educational and cultural exposure that studying abroad would provide their daughters.
"Their parents really wanted them to come over for the experience," Winckler said.
Plus, it wasn't the first extended stay in the United States for either. Jenny and Susanna lived the first five years of their lives in America while Anders played for New York Islanders teams that won Stanley Cups from 1980 to '83.
Understandably, the twins remember little about their first stay in the States. Their Swedish coach, however, has a sharp memory. Through a common friend, he and Winckler met during the 1995 World Championships in Goteborg, Sweden. Five years later, he contacted Winckler while both were at the Texas Relays and indicated the Kallurs were interested in attending a U.S. college.
"We had a pretty good reputation with hurdlers," Winckler said. "I think that's important for the girls as well as for him."
Another selling point was Winckler's experience in training foreigners within the context of their summer schedules. Yet another was Winckler's promise to stay in touch regularly with the Kallurs' Swedish coach.
"We talk every week through e-mail about what we're doing and take his suggestions and he takes mine," Winckler said. "I've had foreign athletes in this situation before. It's something that can be managed."
Still, some Swedes were wary. The Kallurs are no ordinary hurdlers.
At the 2000 World Junior Championships in Santiago, Chile, Susanna won the 100-meter hurdles in 13.02 seconds, the best time in the world last year for a junior. In the same race, Jenny finished sixth in 13.30. No Americans made the final.
Jenny and Susanna also ran on Sweden's third-place 4x400 relay team to bring home another medal.
"We were fortunate we got them," Winckler said.
Proven track record
No small attraction for the Kallurs was Winckler's proven record of developing world-class hurdlers. Three-time Olympian Tonja Buford-Bailey is Exhibit A. With the Kallurs watching on TV, Buford-Bailey ran the second-fastest 400 hurdles time ever (52.62) at the 1995 World Championships in Goteborg, Sweden.
Then there's Illini sophomore Perdita Felicien, a 2000 Olympian for Canada who shows every sign she can be of Buford-Bailey's caliber.
"That's why we came here," Jenny Kallur said.
the Kallurs knew they'd train with Felicien, the reigning Canadian hurdles champion. Turns out the twins also have Buford-Bailey as a training partner this spring. She's working out on campus under Winckler's watchful eye in preparation for the U.S. Championships. The Kallurs have been watchful, too.
"It's really inspiring to see both how they run and how they prepare and really focus," Jenny said. "I think you can learn a lot just looking on others."
Said Susanna: "It's good to practice with other hurdlers that are better than yourself so you always have to improve."
Improve much more, and they'll catch Felicien, currently tied for No. 1 in the nation in the 100 hurdles (12.95 seconds). Susanna ranks sixth at 13.09. Jenny, a more recent convert to hurdling, is tied for eighth at 13.29.
"They're an awesome addition," Felicien said. "We've been hearing about them for a long time, so just to have them on the squad is just a great asset for us."
The best group yet?
Though none of the three has completed even two college seasons, there's already talk that the trio will be Winckler's greatest collection of hurdlers ever. That's no small statement considering he once had Buford-Bailey, two-time NCAA hurdles champion Tonya Williams and six-time All-American Dawn Riley on the same team.
"But none of them ran the kind of times these people are running until they were almost seniors in college," Winckler said. "So on the development scale, these three are really ahead of where those three were."
How far ahead? One measure is this weekend when the Illini travel to Des Moines, Iowa, for the Drake Relays. Organizers run the little-seen shuttle hurdle relay there, and Illinois will enter a foursome of Felicien, the Kallurs and junior Camee' Williams (currently tied for 23rd nationally in the 100 hurdles).
The UI record for the event (53.39 at the Penn Relays) has stood since 1996 and was set by a group that included Williams and Riley. But the current Illini have set their sights higher.
All the way up to the 10-year-old world record of 53.00.
"It is a possibility," Winckler said. "We have the personnel that could do that if the conditions are right and we run well."
Susanna and Jenny Kallur of Sweden are the latest in a small but potent group of foreign athletes who've competed for Gary Winckler during his 19 years as a collegiate head coach. A look at his other top foreigners:
Name, Country, School, Comment
Carmel Corbett, New Zealand, Illinois, UI record-holder in outdoor high jump was member of New Zealand national team
Perdita Felicien, Canada, Illinois, Fastest freshman women's hurdler in NCAA history competed in 2000 Olympics
Esmerelda Garcia, Brazil, Florida State, Long jumper and sprinter represented native land in '84 Olympics
Marita Payne, Canada,Florida State, Anchored 4 x 400 relay team to silver medal in 1984 Olympics
Kerry-Ann Richards, Jamaica, Illinois, Ran on 4 x 400 relay gold-medal team in 1999 Pan Am Games
Althea Thomas, Canada, Illinois, Seven-time Big Ten champ was member of Canada's Pan Am Games team