Fast Times 

Swearing off burgers, hoping for victory

Swearing off burgers, hoping for victory

The athletes under her direction strain every day in practice, but it’s the coach, Lori Shepard, who has made perhaps the greatest sacrifice. For nearly a year and a half, she has endured without two of the basic human necessities: hamburgers and fries.

Shepard is fulfilling a vow of abstinence. No burgers. No fries. Not until Ryan Tolbert wins a national title in the 400 meters or the 400-meter hurdles.

Shepard won’t quite hazard a prediction, but she can almost smell her burger on the grill. She can almost taste those fries. And with good reason.

Tolbert, a junior on Vanderbilt’s track team, clocked the fleetest time in the nation this year in the women’s 400 hurdles, 56.33. Last week, she won first place in that event at the SEC Championships—a feat no other Commodore trackster has ever managed in any event. She also qualified to run both her races at the NCAA outdoor meet during the first week of June.

Now Tolbert is also favored to bring home a first from the NCAAs—and to return to Shepard’s countenance the kind of contented expression that can come only from a sizzling, juicy hamburger.

When it comes to athletics, Tolbert may be Nashville’s best-kept secret. Paradoxically, she’s a world-class runner in a town where you read about track about as often as you read about underpaid NBA stars. “She can be as good as she wants to get,” Vanderbilt’s head track coach, Paul Arceneaux, says without equivocation. “She’s got enough potential to win a gold medal and set new world standards.”

Last year, Tolbert narrowly missed winning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. In fact, had she simply run what, for her, was an ordinary time in the 400 hurdles, she could have competed in Atlanta. Un-characteristically, however, she re-corded a subpar performance during the Olympic trials.

You may surmise that Tolbert, running the most pressure-filled race of her life, was overly nervous. “Actually,” she reflects in her cotton-soft voice, “I was too relaxed. I just focused so much on not getting nervous that things never clicked.”

“Too relaxed,” Arceneaux chuckled, shaking his head when he was told of Tolbert’s assessment of her performance. “That’s Ryan.”

Tolbert is a walking—make that running and hurdling—embodiment of such paradoxes. Except for the Olympic trials, says Arceneaux, “every big meet she’s ever been in, she has never failed to set a P.R. [personal record]. She is a game-day competitor.

“But as a person, she’s pretty quiet, not very expressive. I liken her to Edwin Moses. She outwardly has that same solemn look on the track. But behind those glasses he was very relaxed. She is too.”

While she’s a focused, intense racer, Tolbert seems just the opposite off the track. If she were any more laid-back, her coaches suggest, she’d be asleep.

Shepard actually remembers that Tolbert almost did sleep through one race. “She naps a lot,” says the assistant coach, who works closely with Ryan in the hurdles and the open 400. “Her freshman year it drove me crazy. Twenty minutes before she’s supposed to run in a meet, I found her in the field house taking a nap.

“I said, ‘Tolbert! What are you thinking?!’

‘ “Oh, I’m OK,’ she says. Then she goes out and sets a P.R. and a school record.”

Tolbert, who is so goal-oriented that she already envisions a professional track career, followed by law school and sports management or promotions, came to her best event—the 400-meter hurdles—by accident. Another paradox.

At Vanderbilt, Tolbert says, she initially didn’t even like hurdling—even though, at Clovis High School in New Mexico, she ran away with the state titles in both the 100-meter and 300-meter hurdles for four consecutive years. From 1991 through 1994, she scored more points at the state high school meet than anyone else.

Because of her versatility—she also high-jumped, long-jumped, and ran the 200 meters—Tolbert was recruited by Vanderbilt as a heptathlete. After an injury forced her to drop training for the heptathlon, her coaches suggested she try the 400-meter hurdles as a complement to her training in the 400-meter dash. “If you can do hurdles,” she explains, “it gives you confidence for the run. Besides, having hurdles just makes it more interesting.”

Even so, Tolbert didn’t initially envision how much more interesting the event would become. “In my third hurdles race,” she remembers, a smile emerging, “I qualified for the Olympic trials. I started thinking, ‘OK, maybe I’m going to do this.’ ”

Now Tolbert ranks as a rarity—a standout in both the 400 hurdles and the 400 dash. Individually, each of the two races is one of the most demanding in track. Together, they surely constitute the most difficult “double.”

But Tolbert is far from alone among the consistent point-scorers on Vanderbilt’s track team, which has emerged as a Top 25 program. Eight other Commodores scored points at the SEC meet, and four—shot-putter Leslie Vidmar, 800-meter runner Stacy Carpenter, hurdler Amanda Helberg, and 5,000-meter runner Whitney Spannuth—qualified at least provisionally for the NCAA meet.

But Tolbert, who owns nine school records, is clearly the team’s cornerstone. Besides running her two individual events, she anchors a strong 4 x 400 relay team. The points she scores alone make the Commodores contenders.

The steadiness of Tolbert’s mere presence, her coaches contend, gives confidence to her teammates. “She’s not intimidated by anyone,” Arceneaux says. “That carries over to the others when they line up against [powerhouse] teams like LSU.”

By turns, Tolbert also serves as a catalyst and a magnet. With her talents, she might have chosen other schools with bigger facilities and longer track traditions. Instead, she says (adding still another paradox to her résumé), she came to Vanderbilt precisely “because it didn’t have a tradition. I wanted to be part of something starting from the ground up.”

Now the program’s heightened visibility, which Tolbert has helped create, is attracting others to Vanderbilt. “We just signed a top sprinter from Colorado,” Arceneaux points out, “partly because of Ryan.”

Though it could have severe dietary consequences for Shepard, failing to win at the NCAA meet won’t signify the end of the world for Tolbert. She won’t dwell on it, just as she says she seldom thinks about her failure at the Olympic trials.

She’s too busy focusing on what’s ahead—especially the 2000 Games in Sydney. Looking back is not part of her strategy.

Rather, says Tolbert, her plan is to “go out hard in the beginning, take the first curve hard, and stride the back stretch. By the top of the last curve you should know where you are.”

That wouldn’t appear to be a problem. Tolbert gives the impression that she always knows exactly where she is.

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