Eugene Howard says the bottom line was he wanted a son. His six daughters always knew it, he said, and consequently were always trying to prove themselves. At times, the thought made them mad. But the anger only drove them on.
"I think it got under their skin," Eugene said, smiling. "It made them tough and strong because they wanted to show that they could be as good as the guys. . . . I think 'The Son I Never Had' helped (Sherri and Denean) win their Olympic gold medals."
Actually, it was the Father They Did Have who helped to make them champions. A former Air Force master sergeant, Eugene demanded mental and physical discipline from his daughters. And the girls--Darlene, 27, Gina, 26, Atra, 24, Sherri, 22, Tina, 21 and Denean, 20--listened.
They received only A's and B's in school and excelled in athletics. While living for 13 years in Alaska, they played hockey, skied and ice skated in the winter. They played softball, tennis and ran track in the spring. They played volleyball and baseball in the summer and basketball and football in the fall.
Eugene, of course, was their coach for all seasons.
"We never stopped being active," Denean said. "We played every sport we could and we did it all together. My dad always said, 'If you are going to win or lose, do it together.' "
In 1979, when Denean was a freshman, Tina was a sophomore, Sherri was a junior and Arta was a senior at San Gorgonio High School in San Bernardino, the girls practiced what their father preached. In their first year as a mile-relay team, the Howard sisters set four national records in four weeks, breaking their own record every weekend for a month until they reached--and won--the state finals.
In 1980, they moved to Granada Hills. While attending Kennedy High, Sherri and Denean finished first and third in the Olympic Trials, earning berths on the U.S. women's 400-meter relay team. Last summer, they both won gold medals in the Olympics. It was the first time two sisters represented the United States on an Olympic track in the same event; naturally, it was also the first time two sisters won gold medals in the same track event.
Sherri and Denean, representing Cal State Los Angeles, will compete today in the Pepsi Invitational track meet at UCLA's Drake Stadium. Denean will run in the 400 and Sherri will run either the 200 or 400.
Eugene, of course, is still their coach.
Last year, Sherri ran an Olympic-record 400-meter relay split: 48.83 seconds. Remarkably, she set the mark while running with two stress fractures in her left foot.
"I told her she shouldn't run," said Eugene, who served as an assistant coach on the Olympic mile-relay team. "But Sherri said, 'I can do it. I can run with pain.' I often wonder what she could have done if she had been injury free."
Her Olympic teammates were so impressed with Sherri's performance that they awarded her their highest honor: the Pathenic or Olympian Award. Sherri was selected on the basis of poise, character, community relations and grade-point average.
"I was so excited when she got that award," Eugene said. "To think I have a daughter in that class is something I am very proud of. To me, it's more important than the gold medal."
Neighbors call the Howard's house in Granada Hills, "The Home of Fame." More than 1,000 awards and trophies are crammed onto its walls, shelves and tables. There are so many trophies that the family bought a bigger house in January just to have a place to put them all.
Although Darlene and Gina received college scholarships in basketball and Atra and Tina were part of the Howard sisters' prep track team, most of the recent trophies belong to Denean and Sherri. The two dominated high school track, keeping the Track & Field News' national high school Athlete of the Year award and TAC national 400 champion title in the family for four straight years.
"I think a majority of our talent is hereditary," Sherri said. "But we're also hard workers and have devoted a lot of our time to training."
Eugene and his wife, Barbara, were both prep athletes. Eugene, 45, was an All-City and All-State track and basketball player at Northwestern High in Detroit and most valuable player of the Alaskan Air Command basketball team. Barbara, 45, was a high school track star in Texas. She ran with her sisters and cousins in prep's first familial track team--the Polk and the Chamberlain sisters.
Barbara and Eugene believe strongly that the family that plays together, stays together.
"We have always urged our daughters to do things as a family," Barbara said. "And we have been so proud of all their accomplishments. Sherri, especially, has overcome numerous injuries in the last few years and (has) succeeded far above our expectations."