Ill Fly Away

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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.

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T.R. Witcher