NEW ORLEANS -- Prayer carried Rochelle Stevens for 300 meters. But it was her lean legs and a voice from the crowd that pushed her the last 100 to the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Last night, Stevens held off the field in the stretch and won the women's 400 final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.
Her time of 50.22 seconds was hardly her best. But it didn't matter. Four years after leaving the trials in tears, the 1988 Morgan State University graduate was headed to the Summer Games of Barcelona, Spain.
"This was the first time in my life that I was praying during a race," Stevens said. "I was just praying and praying and praying in those first 300 meters. But I stopped the last 100."
That's when Stevens' legs and her mother's voice took over. Stevens went into a frantic sprint as her mother, Beatrice Holloway, screamed, "Turn it over. Turn it over."
"I didn't know if Rochelle would win or not," said Holloway, who has coached her daughter for two years. "I just wanted her to keep relaxing and turning her legs. This is the most nervous I've ever been before a race. I just praised God."
Meanwhile, a federal judge was expected to rule today whether to overturn a circuit court judge's decision to let world-record shot putter Randy Barnes compete in the trials. U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver heard arguments yesterday from lawyers representing Barnes and The Athletics Congress. Barnes, a 1988 Olympic silver medalist, was suspended for testing positive for steroids in August 1990. He maintains he is the victim of an unfair drug-testing system.
On a sweltering summer night in Tad Gormley Stadium, the trials picked up momentum with a series of terrific finishes.
The Butch Reynolds saga went on. The 400-meter world record-holder who used a Supreme Court decision to temporarily overturn a drug suspension, simply won't go away.
Last night, he was the second fastest man in the semifinals. Tonight, he'll be on ABC's "Nightline." And tomorrow night, he'll go in the 400 final, perhaps the most eagerly anticipated race in trials history.
Reynolds used a 44.14 to finish behind Southern Cal's Quincy Watts, whose 43.97 was the fastest 400 since the 1988 Olympic final. Reynolds and Watts, the NCAA champion, will join two 1988 Olympic medalists, Danny Everett (44.69) and Steve Lewis (44.77), in a final of speed and intrigue.
The International Amateur Athletic Federation may be intent on barring Reynolds from the Summer Olympics, but for one race, perhaps his last, he'll be able to match his talents with the best in the world.
"Running this fast at this stage of the game is good," Reynolds said. "I believe things will hold up. I feel I will make the Olympic team."
The men's 800 closed with a rush, as Johnny Gray (1:42.80), Mark Everett (1:43.67) and Jose Parilla (1:43.97) took the top three spots.
Parilla, who won a 1988 Maryland state high school track title while attending Severna Park, used a ferocious closing kick to out-lean George Kersh (1:44.00) at the finish.
"I ran a stupid race," Parilla said. "But in that last 100, I just put in everything that I had. I knew Johnny Gray was out of reach. But I felt I could get the others."
It was only after taking a premature victory lap that Parilla discovered he made the team. He then rushed to the stands and hugged his father, Jose, a career Air Force officer.
"I felt like crying," said Parilla, a Tennessee sophomore.
Stevens, though, had no doubts about her triumph. She went out too quickly in the 100, was reeled in by the field, but came on strongly at the end to earn her Olympic spot. Jearl Miles was second in 50.30, and Natasha Kaiser was third in 50.42.
"All I could think about was getting across that finish line first," Stevens said. "I didn't care if I fell over it. I was going to get there."
Stevens did not want a repeat of her bitter 1988 trials experience, when she missed making the 4x400 relay team by one spot. She left Indianapolis and quit the sport for six months, only to return after making a vow to her younger sister, Catherine, who was stricken with cancer. During her freshman year at Southern University, Catherine Holloway awoke one day and was paralyzed. Doctors discovered a brain tumor, and she died in 1989.
"Before she died, I told her I would get a gold medal," Stevens said. "I told her I'd get that medal in Barcelona."
But it was only after she joined forces with her mother, two years ago, that Stevens' racing career took off. Training at home in Memphis, Tenn., Stevens transformed herself into the best women's 400 runner in America.
"My mom is tougher than any coach I've ever had," Stevens said. "No pity. She looks all nice in practices, but you should see her in action."