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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

She's Coming Up In Track World

Northridge assistant McAuley claims Burrell could win heptathlon in 2000 Olympics.

July 22, 1998|JOHN ORTEGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST HILLS — The world's next great heptathlete works part-time as a personal trainer, lives in West Hills and trains at Cal State Northridge.

That's the opinion of Jeff McAuley, a Northridge assistant coach who guided Shelia Burrell to a second-place finish in the heptathlon in the USA Track & Field championships in New Orleans last month.

Burrell, a 26-year-old graduate of UCLA, was a virtual unknown on the world heptathlon scene at the start of the year, but McAuley says she could be the woman to beat in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

"She's got an infinite amount of potential that you should see develop in the next couple of years," he said. "There's no event in which she's even close to being topped out in. . . . Our goal is to win the Olympic gold medal in Sydney and score 7,000 points in the Olympic year."

McAuley's comments will no doubt be dismissed by many, especially after Burrell failed to clear a height in the high jump on the first day of the heptathlon in the Goodwill Games in Uniondale, N.Y., on Tuesday.

Yet McAuley insists Burrell has the athleticism, dedication and desire to rule the grueling two-day endeavor that consists of the 100-meter high hurdles, high jump, shotput and 200 on the first day and the long jump, javelin and 800 on the second.

Burrell's failure to score a point in the high jump left her in eighth place after the first day of the Goodwill Games and nixed any chance of reaching her pre-meet goal of 6,600 points. But even if she had hit that mark, she wouldn't have considered herself an elite heptathlete.

"When I start scoring 7,000 points, then I'll start to think, 'You know what? I'm pretty good,' " Burrell said.

Only two women have scored 7,000 points, but the outgoing, fast-talking Burrell trained alongside world-record holder Jackie Joyner-Kersee during her five years at UCLA.

She also was coached by Bruin assistant Bobby Kersee, husband and coach of Joyner-Kersee.

McAuley says Burrell's association with the Kersees is the reason she has such high standards.

Burrell, who placed fourth in the 1995 NCAA championships, says she's simply buying into McAuley's vision.

"I didn't know how good I could be until I met Jeff," Burrell said. "He's one of those coaches who is very passionate about track and field and was very positive with me from the start. I feed off of being encouraged and being told how good I am and he does that."

McAuley, a devout Christian like Burrell, approached her about training with him in June of 1997.

He didn't know who she was, but he'd seen her work out at the Northridge track.

"I could tell she was a very good athlete," McAuley said. "So I decided to talk to her."

His timing couldn't have been better.

Burrell was in dire need of a coach.

She finished 14th in the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials while training with Jane Frederick, a former U.S. record-holder in the heptathlon, but was unsuccessful in getting Kersee to work with her last year.

"I was really getting depressed about the whole thing," Burrell said. "I was basically thinking that it was time to retire."

Enter McAuley, a 30-year-old coach who has worked with the sprinters, hurdlers and jumpers during his three years at Northridge.

After training Burrell for the last six months of 1997, McAuley was confident she could score 6,000 points in the Mt. San Antonio College Relays in April.

That confidence waned in January after Burrell sustained a stress fracture in her left foot.

The injury prevented her from running for two months, but she maintained a high level of fitness by riding a stationary bike twice a day and doing pool workouts.

The work paid off in the Mt. SAC Relays, when she raised her career best to 5,840 points, best score in the U.S. this year until early June.

"That period of being injured might have been the best thing for me because it really made me think why I was doing what I was doing," Burrell said. "It really helped me focus. . . . And after scoring that 5,840, I started thinking, 'I could win [the USA Track & Field championships].' "

Burrell fell one place and 108 points shy of champion Kelly Blair-Labounty in that meet, but her 6,294-point total was by far her best and earned her a spot in the Goodwill Games.

Sabine Braun of Germany, the 1997 World champion, was favored entering the competition, the last heptathlon of Joyner-Kersee's illustrious career.

Burrell was the least known of the eight entrants, but McAuley figured she had a good chance to score 6,600 points.

"She lost at least 150 points in the long jump at nationals because she was way behind the board," McAuley said. "And she fouled her first two attempts in the shotput and had to stand throw on her third."

The shotput and high jump are Burrell's two weakest events, but she says she won't have any weak events in another year.

"My goal is to be a champion," Burrell said. "Right now, I'm just good because 6,294 is OK. But a lot of people have scored more than that. Some have scored a lot more than that. But I'm trying. As long as I believe and I keep trying, I think it's going to come sooner or later."

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