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.

From the late '60s until just last fall, the Flyers trained out of the Skyland Recreation Center, at 33rd Avenue and Holly Street in northeast Denver, a place where runners practiced on empty tennis courts during the summer and ran laps around a small gym in the winter. (In October, the city tore down the old center and began constructing a new center that will have 16,000 more square feet and an indoor track running above the gym floor.) But despite years of working in cramped conditions, the Flyers hold national indoor high school girls' records at 50 yards, 50 meters, 55 meters, 60 meters, the 50-yard hurdles, the 55-meter hurdles and the shot put. Burkett owns the state record at 200 meters, and former Flyer Caryl Smith, now a track coach at the University of Alabama, holds the state record at 100 meters (set in 1986). The Flyers have produced 49 high school All-Americans and four Track and Field News Athletes of the Year. One of their runners, Pam Greene, made Olympic teams in 1972 and 1980. Nine Flyers have raced in Olympic Trials -- in 1976, 1980, 1988 and 1996.

How to explain the incongruence of a world-class track club operating out of an inadequate rec center in northeast Denver? Look no further than the man in the T-shirt and jeans.

Cathy Sellers, the manager of development programs for USA Track and Field, which oversees American involvement in Olympic and international competition, says, "If you had a coach of high school basketball who turned out all the elite athletes Tony Wells has coached, he would be the guru of all basketball."

Here's a story about Tony Wells. It takes place at Ruby Hill Park near the corner of Florida Avenue and South Platte River Drive in southwest Denver, where for years Wells has had his kids "bound" up the hill. When a runner bounds, she lifts one knee high into the air, while the opposite leg kicks straight back, then vice versa. Bounding fries your hamstrings and your gluteus muscles. It builds up lactic acid, so your muscles feel increasingly leaden. At Ruby Hill, the Flyers bound some ninety meters to the top, walk back down and catch their breath for three minutes, then do it again. Seventeen more times. Everyone bounds.

"They go away to school," Wells says with a smile. "That's all they seem to remember is running that hill."

Wells used to watch for those runners who tried to buck the system by feigning injury or asking for a trip to the bathroom. With the latter, Wells would grant the request on this condition: The runner had to start the entire circuit over again. If she was on bound number twelve and had to step out, she was back to bound number one -- with eighteen to go.

One girl, Cynthia Nelson, nine years old at the time, had finished thirteen bounds when she found the need to relieve herself. Fearing Wells's policy on delays, she wet her pants. Though she was understandably embarrassed, Nelson was too tough to cry. "She was a little stud," Wells notes with pride. Nelson went on to make the Junior National Team five years straight -- a feat no Flyer before or since has matched.

Wells's young charges rue being anywhere near him when they've run a poor race. And lately he's fussy with everyone. Joyce isn't running up to her potential, Burkett's race times the last few weeks are too high. He's even mad at hurdler Dawn Riley, another Flyer who has a shot at making the Sydney team.

"Why's he mad at me?" she asks Burkett. "I haven't run a meet." (Later, Wells will tell Westword that he was upset at Riley for not drinking enough water at practice.)

Still, Wells, who is 56, has also been known to carry on like a friendly bear. He'll sometimes clip newspaper and magazine articles he believes his girls should read, like one titled "Couch Potatoes Run High Risk by Vegetating" or "The Lure of the Rogue," a piece about how straight-arrow young women are susceptible to the charms of scoundrels.

No one doubts that he cares, but Wells won't tolerate hype in himself, his coaches or his runners, no matter how good they get. The only thing he's interested in is results. Results get his girls into college.

In 1995, Wells was awarded the designation of "master coach" by USA Track and Field. Out of 38,000 track coaches in this country, fewer than 25 are master coaches.

He was born in St. Louis and moved to Denver in the early '50s when his mother took a job at the Air Force Finance Center. He ran track, but not seriously. Mostly he spent his late teens and early twenties hanging out and getting into trouble. He went to Drake University in Des Moines, partied and did not graduate. He didn't return to Denver until he was 28. Mae Adams, the director of the Skyland rec center, saw him out one night drinking with friends and told him he was capable of more.

Adams had known him since he was a kid. He doesn't know why she singled him out. "Maybe it was just that I was one of the kids who opened the door and closed it at night, swept the floors. We grew up there." So in 1967 he came to Skyland to coach a little tennis, a little chess and pool, a little three-on-three hoops. Wells had participated in the rec center's activities as a child, but he brought no special experience to coaching any of them.

The Flyers had been started by Robert Smith, who ran (and still runs) a nonprofit organization that provides rehabilitation services to the disabled community. Smith created the Red Shield Track Club in conjunction with the Salvation Army, intending to send a team of black kids to run in the yearly Junior Olympics at the University of Colorado. For the first week it was just for boys, but by the end of that summer, there were hundreds of boys and girls in the program. Smith and his coaches would run an old Hope Center school bus up and down 32nd Avenue (now MLK Boulevard) to pick up and drop off the kids. In 1968 Smith changed the name of the club to the Denver Flyers; in 1974 the Flyers merged with an all-white club in Thornton and were renamed the Colorado Flyers.

Before too long, Smith asked Wells to coach boys' track. And while at first he didn't seem destined for coaching greatness, Wells was a perfectionist. He began to study the training philosophies of East German and Russian track coaches. "At that particular time, they were the most successful. East Germany had a small population base, but they were successful," Wells recalls. He studied neurophysiology, anything to give his runners an edge. He also wanted to dispel the notion that black athletes were noble savages endowed with immense natural athletic ability, so he put them through a rigorous and analytical system. By 1975, Smith had talked him into coaching girls full-time.

"He's a student," says Smith. "It's the same way with tennis, same way with chess. He loves studying stuff. And he's a competitor. He was a natural for it without himself knowing it. You could see that he was going to be committed."

Wells puts his young runners through a battery of tests when they first arrive, and about six months later decides which event gives them the best chance at success. The girls don't change events. If Wells says a girl is running the 400 meters, she doesn't tell him she'd rather do the long jump. She runs the 400 meters or she goes home.

Most coaches try to get their runners in good shape first and foremost. Wells wants his charges to run faster, and he accomplishes that either by increasing the length of a runner's stride or the frequency with which she takes strides. Then he works on strength.

A bulked-up body gives a runner more power, but also more weight and, hence, more inertia to overcome, so Wells trains the central nervous system with a muscular shock therapy that is designed to strengthen muscles without adding muscle mass. Everyone has heard of people who, in times of great stress, are able to achieve feats of strength that would otherwise be physically impossible; the classic example is being able to lift a car to free someone trapped underneath. Wells's goal of getting his runners into a "neural groove" -- a function of increased neural activity from the brain to the muscles -- is like teaching the body how to lift the car even when there's no one trapped beneath.

When Flyers lift weights, they strive to lift 95 to 100 percent of their maximum lift capacity once or twice, maybe three times, maxing out quickly. "We're lifting on the edge," he admits. "It's a little more dangerous, but it gets the strength you want."

Dawn Riley embodies this danger. At 26, Riley is, along with Burkett, a former Flyer and college graduate who has returned to Colorado to train with Wells and take a shot at the Olympics. She has already qualified for the trials in her event, the 100-meter hurdles. She estimates that fifty others have also qualified. At the trials in Sacramento, the top three runners will go to Sydney. The rest will go home. To Riley, the numbers are irrelevant. "I have no doubt in my mind I'll be in the top three. It's imperative. I've worked too hard."

This past December, Riley was coming off a hurdle when she felt her hamstring grab -- as if someone had reached into her leg and was turning the muscle around. "Before I got injured, I was really rolling. I kind of felt like I was overtraining. I could smell success, and my hamstring was like, 'You're trippin'."

Before her injury, Riley was squatting 505 pounds, and she points out that "there are guys up at CU who can't do that." Today she can powerclean -- the first move a professional weightlifter uses to pick a bar up off the ground and raise it to his chest -- 185 pounds, but she's hoping to get that up to 200. She can lunge 305 pounds. And though she's tall, she's not bulky.

Riley hasn't run in a meet since June, and she's not scheduled to compete until March. To get her edge back, she must continue training aggressively, which means she risks getting hurt again. At a recent workout in the Lowry gym's weight room, which is not much bigger than a closet, she prepares to do a pliametric exercise called a step-up -- stepping onto a platform to lift the entire body with one foot, then doing the same with the other foot -- with two weight belts cinched across her waist and 585 pounds straddled across her shoulders. She and Wells look like they're in a painful dance as he spots her; when she's inadvertently pulled back by the weight, she almost smashes him into a wall.

And right afterward, she says she's having back pains. She lays down to stretch it out. "It doesn't hurt," she says. "It's just a figment of my imagination."

Riley doesn't spend much time thinking about how risky her training can get. "I'm training on the edge, and it's like, well, if I bite the dust or hurt myself, I knew I gave it my all."

She started running at age nine behind the Skyland rec center. She used to run with her babysitter, Andrea Bush, a former Flyer and once one of the best sprinters in the nation. When she began to beat Bush, Wells invited her to join the club. Riley says she was terrible at first, but she was tall and long-limbed and "thrashed" the girls she ran against.

When she outgrew the dash, Riley switched to the hurdles. To run the hurdles, a runner can't be afraid to eat dirt. At first Riley sailed over them. Then Wells told her to stop trying to pole-vault, so she settled down and began putting as little space between her and the hurdles as possible. "Now if I bite the dust, I bite it," she says.

Just last year, at a practice the week before the Indoor National Championships, Riley caught her toe on one of the hurdles and crashed to the track, putting a twelve-inch gouge down her right leg. Blood was everywhere -- on the track, all over her leg and shoes. While Burkett ran to get some towels, Wells approached Riley and looked her over.

"You ready?" he asked.

She didn't understand what he meant. "To go home?" she asked, dazed.

"To get on the line." In other words, to get back up and finish, since it wasn't exactly a good time to develop any mental hesitation around the hurdles. Dripping blood behind her, her tights sticking to her shins, Riley ran the drill. A week later she placed fifth at nationals.

At another meet, Riley hit a hurdle and finished poorly. Agitated, she came over to the sidelines and began pacing about Wells, her lips white and shaking. Finally she screamed, "Aren't you gonna coach me?"

"What do you want me to say?" Wells replied. "Don't hit the hurdle?"

On Super Bowl weekend, the Flyers take part in a meet at the University of Colorado, their fourth meet of the new year.

Again Burkett and Joyce race against each other. Joyce is tough, unpolished. Before races, Wells says, she'll tell him to get out of her space.

"People will take her as callous," Wells says. "Her people skills aren't where I like them, but she's getting there." Whatever Joyce lacks in exchanging pleasantries, though, she makes up for in fearlessness. She started running when she was eight. She went to Flyers practices to watch her cousins run, and before long, she made a bet with Wells that she could outrun all of the young girls in his program. She beat them at 50 yards, 100 yards, 200 yards.

So Wells took her to a meet at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, and Joyce came back with three first-place medals. "That was the start of the whole show," says her father, Dwight.

"Tony's hard on them," Dwight continues. "Tony's ghetto hard. He breaks it down to the level of each individual to toughen them up, to get in their head and tell them what they need to do to be a champion."

"I don't usually go out," Joyce says. "It is basically my life. Like a job."

Burkett, on the other hand, is a natural leader. At practices, she'll often put the other girls through their paces, sometimes quizzing young runners on proper techniques. When she started running, it was just for fun, but when she was twelve she joined the Marcus Walker Track Club in Denver and ran there for three years. She always knew she was good, and she began "thinking about college more seriously. Track and field was the best way to get college paid for." When she entered her junior year at East, she started training with Wells. She had known him for years, but the prospect of training with him was intimidating. During their first meeting, Wells laid down his rules, which were simple: The runners were on his time. Period.

Flyers have little opportunity for socializing or dating. They practice almost every day after school, including Friday evenings, and during the season they run meets on weekends. The children in the group get five or six weeks off a year; the older girls get maybe two or three.

"I would never have let my daughter run for Tony before her junior year," says Burkett's mother, Joan, who's run track clubs herself and who has other children who have excelled athletically.

"Your role as a parent is to protect your child from us," adds founder Bob Smith. "Lots of them quit; lots quit when they become teenagers. They just don't want to work that hard. People say, 'You're not letting them be kids.' All you can say to that is, 'We're not trying to do that kind of thing.'"

At first Burkett thought Wells was crazy. Her mother remembers that after her first meeting with Wells, she was dead set on not running for him, but she had already promised to try for six months.

Now, six years later, Burkett lines up against Joyce at the CU meet. But at the gun, one runner is out before the rest. The gun fires again, signaling a false start. They line up one more time, and the race is on. Joyce wins, but her time is average. Everyone is unhappy.

Burkett: "Did you see me? I struggled out of the blocks."

Joyce: "I'm really sick of seeing this track. Every time I come here, I never get a good time."

Wells appears after his runners have cooled down and snatches Joyce away with a quick grab of the arm. "Get ready to run the 400," he barks, a sure punishment (but there is no 400 event at this meet, so it'll be the 300 instead). "I'm tired of it," he continues. "If you can't run fast, run long. You'd better get your head right." Whenever his runners are off, Wells tends to interpret any behavior -- chatting with a guy, listening to music -- as a sign of a complete lack of focus. (He did this once before with Burkett, years ago -- made her run the lead-off leg in the 4-by-100 relays after she false-started in the 55-meter dash. Burkett's relay team went on to win that day.) Joyce walks away.

The coaches gather. "I'm tired of her messing around," Wells tells them. In recent weeks, Joyce has set national records for high school junior girls in the 50-yard dash and the 60-meter dash. Still, Wells is not satisfied with her results. "If she's gonna run, run. If she can't do any better, we're in trouble. She doesn't perceive anybody as a threat."

Yet Wells lets her go home without running the 300.

Old-school Tony Wells would never have done that. "He's a marshmallow now," says Riley. "He was really something back in the day."

Even the master coach admits that he no longer insists things be done at a certain time. If a runner needs a break on the dreaded bound, he's liable to give it to them.

"Whenever you get an athlete out of Tony's program, it's always a challenge to try and find a way to make them better," says Gary Winkler, head of women's track at the University of Illinois, from which both Burkett and Riley graduated. "Some coaches don't want to coach his people, because they know they can't make them any better."

But as hard as he pushes his runners, Wells has remained inert. Over the years, numerous offers to coach major university track teams have crossed his desk. In the late '80s he almost took a job as head of the track program at the University of Florida, but that would have meant also doing conditioning work for the football team. He turned down the job, and the team went on to be a perennial powerhouse in the '90s. Recently he spent a few days in Austin reviewing the track program at the University of Texas, but he would never coach there.

"As Tony has gotten older, he's gotten set in his ways," says Tony Veney, a track coach at the University of Oregon, who points out that there are limitations on the amount of time college coaches can spend with their athletes. "He needs to spend the time and the effort [on his runners]. Tony likes calling his own shots."

In some ways, it's tough for Wells to coach Burkett and Riley. They are women, out of college and out in the world.

Having older runners, Smith says, "puts tremendous pressure on you to raise money to help support them. As grown women, their behavior can sometimes distract the younger girls. You can't push them like you can a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old. You can't say to a 22-year-old woman, 'You will do this or else.' An adult's an adult."

However, Wells can threaten the younger girls with, as he's been known to put it, a foot up the ass if their performance falls off. But he says there's more to it than simply making demands on them. "For you to impose your will, an athlete has to decide her coach has her best interests at heart or she won't allow you to be imposing your will."

And sometimes, what happens to his athletes is completely out of his control. In early February, Burkett came down with a kidney infection that laid her up for several days. Her words from early January -- "If I stay healthy, I'll make the team" -- now sound foreboding. "You try not to dwell on those things," she says in a subdued voice, recovering at her mother's house. "That thought hits you, but you have to let it go if you want to achieve your goal." She says she won't miss much time away from practice and that within a few days she should be off antibiotics and pretty much back to full strength. Still, considering her three-month bout with mono last summer and the death of her father this fall, it's hard not to think that Burkett may be snakebit as the Olympic trials draw near. She thinks otherwise. "Considering the things I've gone through, this is nothing."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
T.R. Witcher