Pocketful of dreams still there for Zellner Woodlawn runner fails in 400 hurdles

June 17, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Going into the final of the men's 400-meter hurdles last night at Olympic Stadium, Torrance Zellner said he wasn't thinking about what happened to him four years ago at the last U.S. Olympic trials in New Orleans. The false start he thought he had committed but wasn't called. The disappointing, sixth-place finish.

Instead, the former Woodlawn High star was thinking about getting back here next month for the 1996 Olympics.

"To get this close, I really want to make it," Zellner said yesterday afternoon, relaxing in his hotel room. "I'd like to have two Olympics in my pocket by age 30."

His pockets are still empty, but his dream continues.

After running a personal best in a meet last week near where he now lives in Raleigh, N.C., and then backing it up with his second-best time ever in Saturday's semifinals, Zellner was overtaken by a case of nerves before the final started and by a field that included Bryan Bronson, who won in a time of 47.98 seconds. Zellner finished fifth in 48.65 seconds, more than a half-second slower than he ran in the semifinals.

"I was really excited," said Zellner, who needed to signal for time just before the starting gun went off. "I thought it played a role in me not being too loose."

In fact, Zellner said he was so nervous that "I felt queasy and everything went numb."

Zellner took a few deep breaths and got his feeling back, but he never got back to the form he showed in his previous two races. It proved to be a disappointing ending to what had the makings of a Cinderella comeback story. But Zellner, 26, vowed that it wasn't going to be the final chapter of a story that has its roots in Baltimore with stops at UMES and the University of Florida.

"To come back from all the injuries I had, it's a very good step," said Zellner, who had a stress fracture in his foot in 1994 and pulled a hamstring at last year's nationals. "In a few months, I'll be exactly where I want to be."

Considering where Zellner has been, finishing back in the pack in an Olympic trials final isn't so bad. After winning the bronze medal in the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana, the gold in the 1993 U.S. Olympic Festival in San Antonio and taking third in the 1994 U.S. Championships in Knoxville, Tenn., Zellner all but disappeared from the sport.

"I should have run as fast as I am now a long time ago," said Zellner. "There's a lot of things that would have changed it, but I don't want to think about that. I'm just trying to concentrate on what I'm doing now. I'm running well, but I know I can run even better."

Injuries were a large part of the problem, but they were not Zellner's only hurdle. Because of a lack of off-season training facilities in Maryland, as well as a lack of financial support, Zellner moved to North Carolina to train with Duke coach Wilbur Ross. A small contract with a shoe company, as well as some help from his retired parents, had allowed Zellner to concentrate on getting to the trials.

Now, with the trials behind him, Zellner said he hopes that his recent performances will drum up interest among European track promoters and perhaps get him a bigger shoe deal. "I think a lot of people will be interested in knowing that I'm back," said Zellner. "They [his competitors] are not finished with me yet. I still have a lot of good years ahead of me."

And with Atlanta out of the picture, Zellner will begin the long and possibly even more difficult road to Sydney for the 2000 Summer Games. From a figurative sense, his pockets still will be empty. But Zellner will look back on the last three nights at the 1996 Olympic trials as a small but important step to a brighter future.

"I have a few more steps to make," he said. "I want to get my time down to 47.5 seconds by the end of this year. Then I want to break the world record."

NOTES: Former Morgan State runner Rochelle Stevens finished second in her heat and advanced to the women's 400 semifinals. . . . In the women's 400 hurdles, reigning world champion Kim Batten won in 53.81 seconds, the best time in the world this year. . . . For the second straight night, world champion Michael Johnson slowed at the finish and was beaten in a heat of the 400, losing this time to Deon Minor. But Johnson, looking to become the first man to win the 400 and 200 in the same Olympics, still advanced easily to Wednesday's final. . . . American record-holder Lawrence Johnson won the pole vault, clearing 19 feet, 1/2 inch on his first attempt.

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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