Longform

Ill Fly Away

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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."

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T.R. Witcher