Aided by coach, Hightower takes all hurdles in stride

Behind the success of Stephanie Hightower, the American record holder in the women's 100-meter hurdles, lies not only her gazelle-like speed, but the determination of her coach, Mamie Rallins. So frequently are they together, and so collaborative their aims, they often seem like extensions of each other.

Their partnership of over five years began with Hightower's enrollment at Ohio State University after reigning as Kentucky women's hurdling champion in high school. Growing up in Louisville, Hightower heard of Rallins's 1967 ranking as the No. 1 women's hurdler in the United States and wanted to train under her - as she still does.

''When I graduated from Ohio State I knew that I wanted to stay here,'' she explained. ''Mamie was my coach.''

An incident at a meet a few years ago underscores their close communication. The two constantly exchange signals while a meet is in progress. Already in the starting blocks, Hightower looked for her coach in the stands, but Rallins had moved to a new location, causing Stephanie to panic. Now, Rallins uses a seal call that gets her hurdler's attention no matter where she is on the track.

Hightower's improvement in the 100-meter hurdles has been steady and impressive. In 1979, as a junior, she became the first national champion in women's track from Ohio State with her victory at the AIAW Outdoor Championship at Michigan State University. She repeated her ascendancy in the collegiate ranks the following year, again with the time of 13.2. Throughout her college career she was one of the few bright spots on a lackluster Lady Buckeye track squad.

She kept on working and improving, too - so much so that at one point a few years ago she actually began to be afraid she was going too fast because the hurdles seemed to come too quickly. ''I had to convince her to push on, that she could handle this new speed,'' said Rallins.

And handle it she did. In 1979, at the AAU Championship, Hightower broke Rallins's own best mark of 13.1, and at the 1980 Milrose Games in New York City she set a world record (7.47 seconds) in the indoor 60-yard hurdles event - a record she herself has since broken several times.

Stephanie obviously was right on target for the Olympics that year, and the boycott of the Moscow games was quite a blow to her. She still thinks back on it as the greatest disappointment of her career, and says she doubts that the games will ever be disentangled from politics.

But Stephanie has pushed on, winning more meets and national titles. Then last summer, with the setting East Germany's Karl Marx Stadium, she set her American record in the 100-meter hurdles, 12.79, though she finished behind the host country's superstar, Marita Koch. The world record of 12.36 set by Poland's Grazyna Rabsztyn in 1980 seems to be coming ever closer into view.

That's one of the goals Rallins is urging her protege toward now, while the other, of course, is a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. They had also hoped to compete in this summer's World Track and Field Championships in Helsinki, but Stephanie missed out on that quest when she was bumped and finished seventh in this year's national championship meet, which served as the qualifying event.

After a workout, as she relaxes in a chic warmup suit, the young hurdler's fashionable appearance and easy manner give no hint of the intensity she must feel at the starting blocks of an international track meet.

She looks a little short for a world class hurdler too; in fact her 5 ft. 61/ 2 in. stature and thin build have earned her the nickname ''little sticks'' - which, incidentally, was also Mamie Rallins's nickname. But athletic prowess clearly runs in Stephanie's family: her father was a topnotch hurdler in his day , while her uncle is Paul Warfield, the former great wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.

As for Rallins, she commands respect with her firm, sincere voice and a knowledge of hurdling accumulated in 20 years of track competition and coaching. But Mamie sometimes feels that full recognition in the track and field community has not always been granted her, even though her training was bringing results.

''I train hurdlers from the feet up, which is contrary to the European approach,'' she explained. ''After all, you can run without arms, but without your feet, you're nowhere.'' Speaking to her would-be critics, she continued, ''Who else can claim the improvement that I have had in Stephanie? She's shorter and less of a natural hurdler than many of the American women, but now she's on top.''

Lately, with Hightower's success, a number of up and coming hurdlers have asked to work with Rallins. Recognition in the community has come Hightower's way too. Earlier this year she was feted by the Touchdown Club of Columbus - which by the name alone you might guess is a rare honor for a female.

According to the generally accepted timetable for women's hurdlers, the 24 -year-old Hightower should still be approaching her peak years. Rallins, however, cautions on this score: ''I don't believe in peaks. Runners get stale, they get so used to making a certain time that it's like tying a shoelace. The only peak is the clock.''

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