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Manhattan Project

Heptathlete Moves to Kansas to Train and It Helps Her Qualify for Olympics

September 14, 2000|JOHN ORTEGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shelia Burrell always wanted to be content as one of the nation's top heptathletes.

She just never figured it would take a move to Manhattan, Kan., a college town of approximately 40,000 people, to attain that feeling.

Burrell, who will compete in the heptathlon in the Olympic Games in Sydney on Sept. 23 and 24, won her first USA Track & Field title in Eugene, Ore., in June, 1999, took the silver medal in the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada, the next month and placed 11th in the World championships in Seville, Spain, in August, 1999. But she felt little satisfaction at the end of the best season of her career.

"I was the national champion last year and I just wasn't that excited about where I was at," said Burrell, 28. "Sometimes you just need a change and I needed to do something different."

That meant moving from Reseda and leaving behind coach Jeff McAuley, a Cal State Northridge assistant who worked with Burrell for the previous 2 1/2 years and who Burrell credits with rekindling her passion for track and field after she took a year off following her 14th-place finish in the 1996 Olympic trials.

"We just didn't see eye to eye on a few things," McAuley said. "I thought a change of scenery might do her some good."

Burrell's next task was to find a coach who was versatile enough to train her in the seven events--100-meter high hurdles, high jump, shotput, 200, long jump, javelin and 800--of the heptathlon.

Cliff Rovelto of Kansas State, who worked briefly with Burrell twice last year, was her first choice. But he advised her against changing coaches less than a year before the Olympics.

"Initially I tried to talk her out of it," he said. "But she was pretty insistent. She really felt like she needed a change in environment."

It didn't take long for Burrell to realize she wasn't in Southern California any more.

She found a nice two-bedroom duplex in Manhattan to rent for $550 a month and the overnight temperature frequently dipped into the 20s in February and March.

In addition, there is little night life in Manhattan, which has helped Burrell focus more than ever on the heptathlon.

"I don't do anything," she said with a laugh when asked about her life off the track. "I train a lot, but other than that, I don't do much. Sometimes I'll come home from practice and clean the house. But I don't do that all the time."

The spartan lifestyle seems beneficial to Burrell, the only athlete out of college working with Rovelto who is not a Kansas State alumnus.

"I think she's a very coachable athlete," Rovelto said. "She's very flexible and she has adapted very well to our system."

The numbers back that up.

Burrell totaled 6,180 points in a low-key heptathlon in Manhattan in May and scored a career best of 6,422 points to place fourth in the prestigious Gotzis (Austria) meet in June to move to sixth on the all-time U.S. performer list.

She followed that with a runner-up score of 6,339--second highest of her career--in the Olympic trials at Cal State Sacramento in July.

"I'm getting there," said Burrell, an assistant coach at Northridge last year. "I'm still waiting for that competition where I put it all together, where everything just clicks, but I feel like I'm getting things [about the various events in the heptathlon] that I didn't get before."

Things like driving out of the blocks correctly in the 200, making the proper transition coming off the curve into the straightaway and maintaining her speed over the last 50 meters of the race.

"She is certainly physically capable of having [career bests] in every event," Rovelto said of the Olympics, which are apt to be held in cool and windy conditions. "She has trained very hard and is as well prepared as she can be."

Now it's up to Burrell to perform well enough on the first day to put her in contention for a top-six finish on the second.

The UCLA graduate usually runs fast enough in the high hurdles to score more than 1,000 points in the heptathlon's first event, but she is very inconsistent in the high jump, the second.

Burrell has a best of 5-9 1/2 in the high jump, but she cleared a paltry 5-3 1/4--for 747 points--in the Olympic trials after running 13.26 in the high hurdles for 1,086 points.

"I don't think she's ever going to jump 6-1 or 6-2," McAuley said. "But she's more than capable of jumping 5-9 and 5-10, and doing it consistently."

Burrell agrees.

"It's just a total conceptual thing for me," she said. "I can jump 5-8 or 5-9, but it's a matter of convincing myself that I can do it in a meet."

Rovelto is not overly concerned with Burrell's high jumping.

He says the event doesn't make or break her in the heptathlon, even if the difference between a clearing 5-8 and 5-3 1/4 is 144 points.

"She came here with the idea that we were really going to work on her weaknesses," Rovelto said. "But I feel like it is more important to emphasize your strengths, and over time, work on reducing your weaknesses."

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