Ill Fly Away

Aspen Burkett holds the national girl's high school record for the 50-yard dash -- 5.84 seconds -- but the last six months of her life have been sluggish. In July the 23-year-old came down with mononucleosis, which laid her up for three months and took her out of fall training. Then, in November, her father died -- and Burkett lost her will to run. "I was running for him as much as for myself," she says. "To not have him here -- it was like there was no reason. After he died, there was nothing I wanted."

What had been Burkett's smooth march toward the United States Olympic Trials in Sacramento this summer has become a struggle to regain her composure and try to make up the six months of training she lost. She hopes to compete in a circuit of outdoor meets this spring and get herself back in peak form. "I'll make the trials," she says. "If I stay healthy, I'll make the team."

The road to Sacramento -- and, hopefully, Sydney -- begins at a January meet on the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins. But Burkett doesn't even want to be here. The last time she was at the College Avenue Fieldhouse, she was a senior at Denver's East High. At the end of the race, in which she set the national record, she caught one of her spikes on the mat, wrenching her back. It took daily work with a chiropractor for the next year to start to recover. Even now, her back twinges on her. But her coach, Tony Wells, made her come: The race is a glorified practice session to get Burkett back into the groove of competition.

A few lanes away is sixteen-year-old Alexis Joyce, a compact high school junior. Just last spring she placed fifth in the Indoor Championships in Atlanta, running on the same field as track stars Gail Devers and Inger Miller. Already she can dust college-age sprinters.

Burkett is quick out of the blocks but quicker down the stretch, so she's most liable to overtake opponents at the end of a race. Joyce, on the other hand, shoots out of the gates like a missile and hopes to hold off any late charge, so the shorter distances on the indoor circuit favor her.

When the gun goes, Joyce takes the lead and keeps it, covering fifty yards in 5.89 seconds. Burkett finishes third, her time 5.99 seconds. She should be able to run it in 5.8. Burkett congratulates Joyce on the race, and, noting that Joyce just missed the record, jokes, "She ain't on me!"

The gym at Lowry Youth Center has three rows of plastic seats lining one wall, six basketball hoops and no track lanes. Tony Wells, wearing jeans and a T-shirt that barely covers his belly, sets up small tripod-mounted sensors, which time distances more precisely than a stopwatch.

It's Friday evening. The runners, almost all of them girls -- children as young as seven or eight all the way through high school seniors -- warm up systematically, walking back and forth, starting fast and stopping, half-running, varying their strides across the small gym.

Their coaches say nothing. In fact, they don't even seem to be paying attention. The girls know exactly what to do.

After the warmups, the girls split into groups. The distance runners pace around the gym for twenty minutes in a drill called the surge: They run hard down the truncated straightaway, then shake themselves through the curves. Meanwhile, the sprinters and jumpers practice clearing adjustable hurdles without taking a step in between: It's just jump, jump, jump -- nine times in a row. Then they move onto a ladder. Each athlete climbs up several rungs with her back to the ladder, then steps off -- she just puts her leg into outer space and plummets, landing with knees bent, butt out and arms straight ahead. The drill teaches jumpers and sprinters how to absorb the shock of impact.

Shock absorption is one way to understand the Colorado Flyers track-and-field club. This is not a recreational program. It is a crucible for elite track athletes. What began as an inner-city program in 1966 now draws young women -- and the occasional young man -- from across the metropolitan area. The goal of the Flyers is for each runner to get a track scholarship to college. And while that may not sound glamorous, when a girl in the program approaches a national high school record -- or shatters it -- big universities come calling with their checkbooks wide open. In the thirty years the Flyers have been around, 66 women have graduated from colleges they attended on scholarships they earned as Flyers. "For those athletes that stay in the program, a scholarship is almost a given," says Chris Turner, who coaches the distance runners.