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They’ve Made Their Marks in Many Different Arenas, but They Have One Thing in Common: These Men and Women of Sport Figure to Be Major Players in the Year Ahead : THE OLYMPIANS : Whitaker Stands Out in Large Contingent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than six years ago, standing in a line at a fast-food joint, Lance Whitaker was approached by a stranger who asked him, “Would you like to make a million dollars?”

He wasn’t joking. Whitaker was still in San Fernando High, but the man took one look at Whitaker’s massive 6-foot-8 frame and predicted that he could make himself rich as a boxer.

Now, nine months after joining Lou Duva’s traveling training camp, Whitaker has established himself as one of the world’s top amateur super heavyweights.

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His sights, like so many others, are focused on the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Whitaker is among a group of 38 athletes from the Valley region who have been designated as “Olympic hopefuls” by their respective sport’s national governing bodies. That number is more than those listed by 39 states.

Although Whitaker is ranked No. 1 among U.S. super heavyweights, the most-probable boxing medalist from the region is Oxnard’s Fernando Vargas, a two-time Olympic Festival gold medalist and 1994 national light welterweight champion.

Four well-known track stars who live in the region will be trying to add to their Olympic medal collection. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a Canoga Park resident, already owns two gold medals in the heptathlon and another in the long jump. Former Taft High sprinter Quincy Watts won gold medals in the 400 meters and 400-meter relay in 1992.

Also training for a return trip to the Olympic awards platform is Agoura resident Johnny Gray, a 1992 bronze medalist in the 800 meters, and Woodland Hills resident Danny Harris, a 1984 silver medalist in the 400 intermediate hurdles.

Sheila Cornell, who played at Taft High, and Kim Maher (Buena) are overwhelming favorites to strike gold in the first Olympic softball competition. Cornell will start at first base and Maher could play in the infield or outfield for a U.S. team that is 110-1 in international competition.


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