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USATF Track & Field Hall of Fame Q&A: Leroy Burrell


In advance of National Track & Field Hall of Fame induction ceremony on November 2 in New York City, USATF interviewed Class of 2017 inductees on their athletic careers and legacies.


Today's feature: Leroy Burrell


Modern Athlete Inductee Leroy Burrell (Lansdowne, Pennsylvania) set 11 world records during his career, including twice claiming the WR in the 100 meters. He ran on five world record 4x100m relay squads, including for Team USATF at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and at the 1993 IAAF World Championships in Stuttgart. Burrell and his Santa Monica TC teammates also set three world records in the 4x200m relay. He is currently in his 20th year as head coach at his alma mater, the University of Houston.


How did you get started in track and field, and when did you first realize your potential?

I started in junior high. I went out for the track team, didn’t have much else to do. I actually wanted to play baseball, but I never made the team. The baseball coach told me I ought to go out for track, and I immediately gravitated toward the field events. I broke a couple records in the high jump and 200m, so it ended up being a natural fit.


What led you to compete at the University of Houston?

Between my junior and senior years in high school, I watched Carl (Lewis) win medals at the ’84 Games. It didn’t dawn on me then that he was at Houston. At an indoor meet, a reporter mentioned me in comparison to Carl because of the events I did and had success in, and shortly thereafter coach Tom Tellez called me from UH. Carl’s mother sent a newsletter from my area to coach Tellez, and he called me and asked if I wanted to visit. The rest worked itself out.


What influence did training with people like Carl Lewis have on you as an athlete?

It didn’t start out as a daily training session with Carl for me as a freshman. When I first got to Houston, it was really difficult for me. The heat was hard on me, and the training was much faster in practice.

Mike Takaha was the sprint coach and I dealt mostly with him for running workouts, and he had us do distance and grass runs in the early fall, which was hard. I told him, “Just wait until we get on the track. When we get on the track, I’ll be good.” I came around pretty quickly once we did.


I grew and improved every year, to the point where I actually went overseas as a junior in college. I got familiar with the summer track scene. By that time, I had begun to train with Carl a bit when he was in town. He was really masterful at getting after it when it was important, and laying low when it wasn’t.

During my senior year, I remember a workout in early indoor season when Carl jumped in on a workout and Carl was behind me. He yelled at me to slow down, but I thought he said something else, so I actually picked it up a bit, and that’s when I knew I could compete with him.


At the TSU Relays that March, I ran the 100 and 200 and did pretty well against Carl and Kirk Baptiste, and that was when I knew I had a chance to be good.


What were the keys to breaking the world record in the 100m the first time?

My career then was a bit erratic [in college]. My junior year I ended up breaking the collegiate record in the long jump at nationals, but still lost to Joe Greene, who had a wind-aided mark that was better. A couple weeks later at the U.S. nationals, I got myself right and went 9.94 to win the 100m.


I was prepared for almost anything my senior year, and ran well at the NCAA meet in the 100, and ran overseas and confirmed I was an international athlete. My first full year out of college in 1991 was a World Championships year, and I had broken the world record in the 60m indoors, so I was ready. At the outdoor nationals in the 100m it all just lined up, with a lot of my Santa Monica teammates in the final, and 9.9 seconds later I had the world record.


What were some of the highs and lows of your career?

When I look back, I wonder how I accomplished some of the things that I did.


To stand on the victory stand and have the announcer say I set an NCAA record but finished second, that was pretty disheartening. It was what you would call a high-low. To come back the next day and not deliver in the 100m because I let myself get beat as a result of the long jump the day before, that was really frustrating.


Some of the most rewarding moments were when I did well with teammate. I was on very close-knit teams in college and then with Santa Monica TC. To win all those relays and set world records, to all be on the same page at the same time, those were special moments. The medal in ’92 at Barcelona (4x100m relay) was really special.


What motivated you as an athlete and what advice would you give the next generation?

Once I was a UH athlete, a Tom Tellez athlete, a Mike Takaha athlete, I had to pretty much bring it every day. You step on the track and see all the great athletes, people like Joe DeLoach, you know you’re going to really have to run.

Moving on to Santa Monica TC, it was one of the greatest collections of track and field athletes ever. Sometimes I feel like the whole club should be in the Hall of Fame. We were all in it together and we wanted it together, we wanted it for each other. Even though we competed against each other, we all wanted it for each other. Those guys are my brothers. We sacrificed a lot of individual opportunity for the greater good. That speaks volumes for our coaches and club leaders like Joe Douglas and David Greifinger.


How did you become a coach at the University of Houston?

I was pushed and prodded to become a coach. When it became clear to me that it was time to move on from being an athlete, I never wanted to be one of those guys who just hung on. I had an exit strategy that I was going to law school and practice law, maybe get involved in politics. Around that time, coach Tellez was considering retirement. I spent a lot of time in his office talking with him over the years, and he always told me he thought I would be a good coach. I told him I had other plans, but he kept hammering away at me.

He had an opportunity to influence who was going to get the position when he retired, and he and Carl pulled me aside and told me I should take the job, and I was the best guy for it. I had no intention of doing that. I said no, no, no, for a while. Then I thought about it and talked with my wife Michelle, another Santa Monica teammate, and she told me that it was what I knew and what I liked so I should give it a shot. I went from competing to a few months later being a head coach. The first couple of years were a challenge, to say the least.


What was your reaction when you learned you were being inducted into the Hall of Fame?

I was in my office doing some of the menial things we have to do as college coaches, and I got the call, and I was like, “What? Really?” I was really surprised, it really caught me off guard. It is certainly a great honor.

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