Hurdling Is Flying for Tonie Campbell : He's the Professor of Aviation at UCI

Times Staff Writer

Flying above the slender streets of UC Irvine in a white sports car, traveling at a speed that doesn't so much register in RPMs but stressed-out stomach muscles . . .

Uh, Tonie? Tonie, the guy on the bike . Tonie?

Students become specks, buildings turn into blurs, the road becomes a black tightrope. All of which make one bellyaching passenger, the soles of his feet pressed against the floorboard in search of the brake that isn't there, wish he had clicked in his seat belt.

Tonie Campbell--known to his Carson neighborhood buddies as Poindexter, as "Coach" to hurdlers at UCI and as 1987 world indoor 60-meter hurdles champion to far too few, has always loved to fly. When he was 5 he dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

"I wanted to be the first black guy somewhere," he said. "Mars, Venus, anywhere."

By the time he was 9, anywhere had become the roof of his parents' home, from which he took one giant step, 15 feet down, clutching onto nothing but an open umbrella and a faith that Walt Disney and Mary Poppins knew what they were doing.

"You know, the umbrella thing actually worked," he said. "Well, for a second. It felt great up there for about a second, then whoooosh."

About 18 years later, on March 8, Campbell pushed out into Indianapolis' Hoosier Dome; what lay ahead were six hurdles and 60 meters. By the fourth hurdle, what lay behind were Greg Foster, the world record-holder in the event (7.46 seconds) and the No. 1-ranked hurdler in the world, and Canada's Mark McKoy.

Foster, running in lane 5, had clipped the second hurdle and staggered forward. He soon drifted into lane 4 and McKoy. Both men slammed into their fourth hurdles, the result being a face-first fall by McKoy and a Foster somersault.

Campbell, running in lane 2, heard the commotion, tucked his body and pushed forward out of instinct. He was running his best race indoors. A slow starter, he had burst out of the blocks and was among the leaders over the first two hurdles.

"When he gets out that well, we know he has a good chance of winning," said Ken Matsuda, Campbell's coach. "No one finishes as well as Tonie. He owns those last few hurdles."

Campbell finished with a personal-best 7.51, everything had worked. His speed, his mechanics, everything was in sync.

"When it's like that, that good, I feel like I'm flying," said Campbell, who doesn't limit the term to turns in his friend Edwin Moses' plane.

"Any time you can break loose and be the master of your space, that's the greatest feeling in the world to me," Campbell said.

The world indoor championship he won in Indianapolis didn't feel so bad either. Of course, you wouldn't have known it from the attention he received.

"No one wanted to talk to me about what I had done," Campbell said. "It was, 'Did you see Greg fall?' or 'What do you think happened to make Greg fall?' I told them I didn't know, I was kind of occupied at the time."

If you watched the race on television, the post-race interviews went something like this:

"Greg, what happened?"

"I don't know."

"Thank you, Greg. Back to the booth."

It wasn't until three hours after the race, when replays and protests had been sorted through, that Campbell received his gold medal. By then, most of the crowd had gone, and so had most of Campbell's heart.

He had won one of the biggest races of his life, yet he felt horrible.

"The impression I got was, 'You didn't win the race, Tonie, Greg and Mark lost it,' " he said. "I got the feeling people thought I was lucky."

Campbell, 27, has beaten Foster before. He was a member of the 1980 and 1984 U.S. Olympic teams. Since he was a 19-year-old sophomore at USC, he has been ranked among the top seven in the world.

"I won the race because I ran a good race," Campbell said. "Greg didn't, because he didn't. But it didn't seem like anyone there really cared about that."

Campbell went back to his hotel room, turned on the television set and found "Star Wars" on. The world champion sat down and became a couch potato.

"I was really hurt," he said. "I locked the door. I didn't feel like seeing anyone. Here I am, the champion, and I'm feeling awful all by myself in my room watching television."

Falls are not shocking to a hurdler. As McKoy said after: "That's the hurdles. It's a dangerous event, like the pole vault."

Likewise, Campbell had surmised: "The hurdles are a violent event. Graceful but violent. The first thing you learn in the hurdles is how to fall."

This was was made clear to Campbell the first day he tried the event at Banning High School. Setting out to impress a girlfriend with his new-found skill, he ended up with a mouthful of dirt.

"Mechanics, intelligence, technique, that's what wins," Campbell said. "Sprinters win the 100-meter dash. A technician will always beat a sprinter in the hurdles."

Campbell, who grew up rail thin with glasses, was not fast enough to make any of Banning's relay teams. "The kids called me Poindexter," he said. "Because I looked like a brain."

He is 6-feet 3-inches and only 160 pounds. He once expressed concern at an outdoor meet that "the wind will knock me over and out."

Campbell's strength has always been technique. He still is one of the quickest over the hurdles. He has tried to pass on some of his knowledge at UC Irvine, where he works with hurdlers as a part-time coach.

His coaching career figured to start in 1985, after a fall in a race in Trinidad in April left Campbell with ligament and cartilage damage in his right knee.

Doctors said his racing days were over. Campbell resigned himself to that for several hours and then set upon his own rehabilitation.

He ran before he was supposed to. He lifted weights when he was told he shouldn't have. He did everything the doctors said would further deteriorate his knee.

He did it to such an extent that by September, 1985, he had deteriorated himself right into the World Cup final, which he won, beating, among others, Foster.

"I just couldn't let it end that way," Campbell said. "I have a very definite idea how my career should end. I'll just have won a big race, and I'll be running, gliding along, with tears rolling down my cheeks. People will be cheering, I'll be crying. Then that will be it."

Campbell says he wants to compete in the 1988 Olympics and then . . .

"I really don't know," he said.

Campbell has spent a lot of time these days speaking at clinics for kids interested in track.

"I feel like I got to give back something," he said. "This sport has given me so much."

So much includes a little heartache in Indianapolis, but also a lot of flying time.

He plans to get his pilot's license in September, so flying figures to be something Campbell will do well after his track days are over.

If by chance he asks you to partake in a little of it with him, in a sports car or plane, here's a tip:

Use the seat belt.

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