Sometimes an athlete just kind of walks into a college scholarship unexpectedly.
That's how it happened for Al Heppner of Howard High.
Come September of 1992 Heppner expects to attend the University of Wisconsin-Parkside on a full tuition scholarship awarded for his prowess in the arcane sport of race walking.
Three years ago Heppnerhad never heard of race walking.
What the heck is race walking? The sport requires athletes to walk as fast as possible while keeping one foot in contact with the ground at all times. Form is essential and involves some exaggerated arm movement that enables a walker to maintain balance.
Currently, 10 colleges across the country participate in race walking competitions. The University of Wisconsin offers perhaps the only scholarships for the sport -- 10 to men and five to women.
"Race walking is like a hard dance step that you just pick up after a while," Heppner said. "It's 50 percent form and 50 percentendurance."
The Howard junior finished second in the 15-16 AAU Junior Olympic 3,000-meter Nationals last August in Clearwater, Fla. His time was 15 minutes, 37 seconds, which is considered excellent. Before that race, he had never broken the 17-minute mark.
In his first AAU Nationals in San Antonio in August 1989, he was winning until the final 100 meters, when he was disqualified for lifting.
Race walkers can be disqualified for one of two violations, lifting and creeping.
Lifting occurs when one foot loses contact with the ground. Creeping is when a walker fails to straighten the support knee as it passes under the hip.
But having competed in race walking for onlytwo years, Heppner is a relative novice.
Though Heppner, who has a 3.5 grade point average and is a member of the Ed Waters Track Clubof Baltimore, may be new to race walking, he is not a novice athlete. He has run cross country for three years, indoor track two years and outdoor track two years at Howard.
"I'm just an average runner and race walking has given me a lot of confidence," Heppner said. "It won't mess up your knees like running can. You go about one-third slower than when you run."
"Al has a good long-distance runner's body, but his race walking technique was awful when I first saw him. So we worked together last spring and summer," said his coach, 38-year-old Naval officer Jim Wass.
Heppner is 5 feet 7 inches and 140 pounds -- a superb physique for distance running.
Wass says that race walking is to running as the breast stroke or butterfly is to swimming.
"My wife likens race walking to yoga because you must synchronize the position of the arms with the motion of the legs," Wass said.
Mike DeWitt, the coach at University of Wisconsin-Parkside, said hewill offer Heppner a scholarship next year when he becomes eligible,even though he's never seen him compete.
"I know he's done well at nationals. He's athletic, a good student and having talked to him on the phone a couple of times he seems to have a good attitude," DeWitt said. "He's excited about race walking and wants to compete and get better, so I think he'll fit in here."
He would prefer a race walker like Heppner who has only competed for a couple of years becauseit will be easier to correct any mistakes in his form.
DeWitt thinks his school is the only one in the country that offers race walking scholarships.
"But we don't eat, sleep and drink race walking," DeWitt said.
The school competes in Division II, NAIA against suchschools as Park College in Kansas City and Hillside College in Michigan.
Heppner can't verbally commit until his senior year and can't sign a letter of intent until April 1992.
But DeWitt is preparedto offer Heppner a $5,000 full tuition scholarship when the time comes.
"He will get one," DeWitt said. "We try to bring in two freshmen every year."
Heppner is delighted that he'll be one of them in 1992.
After his freshman year he becomes an in-state resident, andthe scholarship will apply toward the resident tuition of $2,000.
Race walking is an Olympic and international sport, but DeWitt said there are only 50 to 60 college walkers in the country. His team, half of which is recruited from Long Island, N.Y., took first through sixth places at the latest National NAIA Championships.
DeWitt, 40, is an elementary school teacher who was an All-American race walker at Parkside in 1972. He has competed in four Olympic Trials and the World Cup.