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THE ART of the SPRINT : For Coach Tom Tellez and the Santa Monica Track Club Speed Demons, the Point Is Not Just Winning the Race, but Perfecting the Run.

July 19, 1992|HOWARD KOHN | Howard Kohn, a contributing editor of "Rolling Stone," is the author of "The Last Farmer," a runner-up for a 1989 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. He is currently at work on a book about race relations , to be published by Simon & Schuster. He also coaches Little League.

EACH OF THE SIX, THINKING HE MIGHT SOMEDAY be the fastest man in the world, went to Houston to check out the track coach Tom Tellez, and each of the six remembers Tellez telling him, straight off: "There are two ways to run a race. The right way, and the wrong way." Or, not beating around the bush: "The right way, and the way you run." Tellez did not pat any of them on the back. He offered no smile. He just looked them in the eye, deadpan. The more they heard him go on in earnest detail about biomechanics and physics and kinesiology, never easing up, the more they had to wonder: When is this old crank going to tell me how great I am?

For each of them, even for Carl Lewis, the most dominant sprinter of all time, the question is still pending. Each of them, even Lewis, who as a high school senior in 1979 was chased right and left by recruiters but paid his own way to Houston to interview with Tellez, is still waiting to hear the coach say, "You did it! You ran it exactly right!" And Tellez is still waiting for one of them, perhaps Lewis, perhaps Leroy Burrell or Mike Marsh, or perhaps Joe DeLoach or Floyd Heard or Mark Witherspoon, to speed down the track with absolutely perfect form: arms out front, strides easy, shoulders straight, no lunging at the tape, earth-to-earth lightning from start to finish.

Each of the six, every time he races, takes another run at reaching maximum potential, but in May, under a piercing Texas sun, they were gathered solely to prepare and train. They tossed gym bags on the grass near a reddish-brown oval on the grounds of the University of Houston, the base of operations for Tellez, a native Southern Californian. They stretched and contorted gracefully, methodically, as dancers do. All six were committed body and soul to Tellez. All were the eager subjects of this cheerless, brutally honest, scientifically guided perfectionist. Where other coaches see runners destined to be good-enough runners or also-rans, Tellez sees young men into whom he can pour his consummate knowledge of the sprint, transforming them into 10-second men wonders. His quest had become their quest. Although they were all members of California's Santa Monica Track Club, they had taken up residence in and around Houston to be near Tellez. They had sworn off parties and worked with free weights and trimmed their diets to the essentials until their bodies were as splendidly exquisite as Greek statues. And they had exercised their minds, sharpening their focus, learning moxie, practicing mental reflexes, rehearsing a plan, because in this brotherhood of the righteous, select few, there is no one who wins on sheer talent.

Tellez stood by while they loosened up. He's short and slim and deeply tanned, young looking at 58 save for hair gone white. His gaze was fixed on their every movement. "We're doing OK, but we have to do better," he said, drolly pessimistic. "It's time to step it up." This was a month before the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in New Orleans, two months before next week's opening of the Barcelona Games. That day in May, the six definitely ranked among the top 15 in the world for the two sprint events, the 100 and 200 meters; they were arguably within the Top 10, and conceivably they constituted the top six.

But none of that assured them of the goal at hand: getting to Barcelona. Or the goal after that: winning medals. "Other runners out there can beat them," Tellez said matter of factly (and prophetically, though he could not know it then). He constantly had to remind them of that.

This was all they knew in May in Texas: Each of them needed to reach maximum at the Games, not six weeks out in New Orleans. Yet no one could afford to hold back in the trials. All of them were 25 or older, well into their prime sprinting years. There might not be another Olympics for them. They had to qualify. They had to get to Barcelona, to the bright, floodlighted track circling inside a Spanish stadium, the perfect place to show the world the meshing of their talent and his genius. The perfect opportunity to pursue once more the elusive purity of the perfect race.

WARM-UPS OVER, LEROY BURrell and Mike Marsh are the first into the blocks. Burrell sports a mustache and a chronic five o'clock shadow. Thickly built, he has a body for heavier-duty sports but says he is not interested in a second love like pro football. Marsh, on the other hand, is the picture of smoothness. His head is shaved. His arm and leg muscles are slicked up under the skin instead of bulging through.

For as long as Burrell and Marsh have been racing, way back to high school, Carl Lewis has been The Man, but in the '90s these two have begun to give him a run for his money. In the past two years, Burrell's overall times have evened out as the best in the world in the 100 meters, and this year Marsh has come on, posting the fastest pretrials times for an American in both the 100 and 200.

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