Angela Burnham Relies on Family Support to Withstand Stress

Times Staff Writer

Angela Burnham's favorite expression is "a lot," which underscores the intensity of her feelings.

Of course, deeply felt emotions are as common to a 16-year-old girl as daydreaming in algebra class and doodling hearts on a Pee-Chee folder. What separates Angela Burnham from her classmates at Rio Mesa High is raw speed that has brought unsolicited expectations into her life.

Burnham, who first gained attention two years ago by running 11.77 seconds in the 100 meters, the fastest time of any 14-year-old in the nation, deals with growing expectations to the best of her ability.

"During a meet I look up into the stands and wish I were up there without a care in the world," said Burnham, a junior.

She captured the state high school championship with a time of 11.78 as an anxiety-ridden freshman.

"It was kind of overwhelming. People say I was so calm but actually I was shocked," she said. "Going into the race, I was so nervous. But I run better when I'm nervous."

To calm herself in the starting blocks, Burnham recalled advice from Rio Mesa Coach Brian FitzGerald. "I relaxed mentally by thinking about practice starts the days before the meet and my coach telling me, 'Up and out, up and out. That helped a lot."

Recalled FitzGerald, who is in his eighth year at Rio Mesa: "She had the best start of her life in that race. Her mechanics have improved since then and we've worked on her starts. Her potential is so great that we haven't even seen it yet. With a few more years of training, there is no telling what she can do."

Burnham's potential was put on hold last year by a bout with chicken pox and a deep thigh-muscle pull. She was unable to qualify for the 100- and 200-meter races in the state meet.

The time spent on the sideline diminished her view of the joys of being a spectator. She can run away from the competition on the track, but could not run away from the desire to compete.

"When I was in the stands, I missed running--a lot," she said. "It made me realize that I need to be out there."

Burnham begins this season with a full slate of events at the Sunkist Invitational at the Sports Arena on Friday. She will compete in the 640-yard relay and the mile relay and also is entered in the 500-yard race.

Burnham's best races are the 100- and 200-meter sprints, but the 500 is the shortest race for girls at the Sunkist.

There is no easing into it. The Sunkist is the first meet of the year and already people want to see Angela burn 'em not once, but three times.

"Sometimes I think my coach thinks I don't get tired like everybody else," she said. "He puts me in 50 million events because I'm the fastest. But I say, 'I can do it.' "

To her good fortune, she's not the only one saying so. As an emerging star in a solitary sport, Burnham is surrounded by a solid support system that includes her parents and uncles--several of whom were track athletes at Rio Mesa and Oxnard highs.

"They help a lot," she said. "Because of my family, track has always been what I'm supposed to do. I think they push me just the right amount."

Because she missed so much of last season, Burnham still has several goals left to attain at the high school level. Winning the state title in both the 100 and 200, and helping a Rio Mesa relay team win a title are within reach. "She should be the favorite for both," said FitzGerald, who ran track and played football with three of Burnham's uncles--Reggie, Rod and Daryl Dixon.

In many ways this is like her freshman year all over again.

"Last year was discouraging because there was nothing I could do about it," she said. "I want to put together a complete season this year. It's a lot like I'm starting over."

Complete success includes qualifying for the 1988 Olympic trials. A time of 11.60 is necessary to qualify for the 100; a time of 23.59 is needed for the 200. Burnham's best time in the 200 is a 24.08 she ran during her freshman year.

"I think she is easily capable of qualifying for both," said FitzGerald, who says he has to caution himself about not overextending Burnham by expecting her to run those "50 million events."

"I'm conscious of not pushing too hard," he said. "We haven't been killing her. As soon as it gets around to tangible things like the Sunkist, there is no complaining at all. If you're talking about burnout, she's not even near that stage.

"She loves to run and knows she has great potential."

That knowledge is Burnham's biggest burden, something she cannot leave behind in a trail on a tartan track. But someone has come along to lighten the burden, another fleet 14-year-old Rio Mesa freshman with running talent ready to be tapped. Her name is Alycia Burnham, Angela's younger sister.

"This year at the Sunkist, I'll be worrying more about my sister than myself," said Angela, who will team with Alycia, Mary Bittner and Shannon Wiebelhaus in the 640-yard relay. "She's running for the first time in high school and it's a meet this big.

"I care about how she does--a lot."

Having Alycia around to deflect the pressure Angela places on herself may help her list of accomplishments grow--a lot.

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