Zellner hurdles obscurity in Olympic bid

Ken Rosenthal

July 19, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

LOS ANGELES -- Roney, Roney, all the recruiters wanted Roney. Every time Woodlawn High track coach Dick Estes tried to sell his other top hurdler, he'd be rudely interrupted.

Keep the dress socks, the recruiters said.

Give us the three-piece suit.

Only Torrance Zellner wasn't an accessory. Estes knew it, the recruiters blew it. Three years later, Jerry Roney is indeed a star in the 110-meter high hurdles. But Torrance Zellner is just as prominent in the 400-meter intermediate event.

Zellner, 21, ranks eighth in the United States with two races left on his 1991 schedule -- the Olympic Festival in Los Angeles Sunday, and the Pan Am Games in Cuba next month. His goal is to break 49 seconds and, keep those fingers crossed, crack the top five.

It could happen, based on his stunning progress since transferring to Florida from Maryland-Eastern Shore. Zellner plans to run an experimental race Sunday, then "get busy" at the Pan Ams. "I can't wait to step up to the mike," he said.

Crank it up: Last year Zellner ranked 21st in the nation with a time of 50.56. This year he has lowered his PR (personal record) in race after race, most recently with a fifth-place finish in 49.30 at The Athletics Congress championships.

Right now Barcelona appears out of reach, for the current U.S. rankings don't even include former Olympic gold medalists Edwin Moses and Andre Phillips, both of whom are taking the year off. But Zellner is young, and clearly on the rise, so who knows?

"I still think he's going to represent us in the Olympics," Estes says. "If not next year, then I'll guarantee he'll be in Atlanta [in 1996]. He won't give up. He'll train until he makes it."

Florida assistant Curtis Frye takes a more realistic approach, giving Zellner "a fair shot" to claim one of three spots on the '92 team. Danny Harris and Kevin Young both have broken 48 seconds this season. Five others have broken 49.

Zellner isn't making any predictions, but he's still showing dramatic improvement while others are not. "Almost every time I'm really into it, I PR," he says. "And when I PR, I don't PR just by just 1/100th of a second. At minimum it's 12/100ths of a second."

Why, sometimes Zellner gets so wound up, he doesn't remember where he is. "At TAC, I was just so happy to be in the final, I got overly excited," he recalls. "It sounds funny, but I wanted a front-row seat to watch the race. I was watching the race while I was in it."

To think, Zellner was the forgotten man of the Walbrook class of '88. Roney set a state record in the high hurdles that still stands. Roney won the decathlon at the East Coast Invitational. Roney earned a scholarship to James Madison.

He twice dallied in football, but he's now ranked 12th in the U.S. with a time of 13.63 in the 110-meter event. His situation is similar to Zellner's: The '92 Olympics are a longshot with hurdlers like Greg Foster and Renaldo Nehemiah ahead of him, but an NCAA title is possible next year.

Looking back, Estes says he "probably cheated" Zellner, asking him to compete in events other than his specialty, all for the good of a state championship team. But Zellner never expresses jealousy. In fact, he remains close with Estes and Roney.

Yet, he might have advanced more rapidly if he wasn't overshadowed. "I tried to tell all the recruiters he was as good as Roney, or right there with him," Estes says. But Zellner, despite being the area's most consistent intermediate hurdler, didn't even win the state title.

"Roney was just the No. 1 kid in the East in hurdles," says Frye, who was then at North Carolina State. "People just forgot they had a second one on that level. He was not running great times indoors. By the time they got outdoors, it was a little late for scholarship money."

That's how Zellner wound up at Maryland-Eastern Shore, where he spent two frustrating years running in what Estes calls "local-yokel meets." At Florida he trains with half-milers to improve his conditioning, and competes against the best of the SEC.

The transfer had one drawback -- Zellner abandoned his architecture major for sports administration so that he could graduate on time in two years. But Frye predicts, "By the time he's 35, he'll be an engineer. He hasn't lost his dream. He just delayed it."

Besides being a diligent student, Frye says Zellner is an "awesome person," and Estes agrees. In high school, Zellner gave a third-place medal to a competitor who was wrongly placed behind him. He ran with a cast on his arm, ran as many events as possible, ran for the team.

Roney, Roney, all the recruiters wanted Roney, but three years later Estes dreams of seeing both his former stars in the Olympic Games.

"I love 'em both, they're like my own," he explains.

And if they somehow make it to Barcelona?

"I told my wife," Dick Estes says, "I'm going."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.