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Making tracks for success

Sabrina Herring-Kelly, 15, looks like a little girl, and even smiles like one. She's quiet, and she listens, a trait she learned from her first cousin, Derek Walker, 27. Walker, founder of the Striders Track Club and Sabrina's personal coach and mentor, said three years ago that his cousin had the potential to be an Olympic runner. She won all her races she ran for the Striders.

He was right. A sophomore sprinter at St. Petersburg High School, Sabrina has run fast enough to qualify for the Olympic trials next year.

She has an impressive record:

USA Today ranked her third in the nation in the 100-meter dash among high school girls.

In May, she won the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes at the prestigious Golden South Classic Track and Field Meet in Winter Park. She ran against 40 champions from 12 states, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.

She was selected as this year's Times Female Track Athlete of the Year in Pinellas County. She ran the fastest 100 meters in the county _ 11.49 seconds _ and finished second in the state in the 100 meters.

On top of that, she's been invited to participate in the USA National Junior Championships June 20-23, sponsored by The Athletic Congress (TAC) in Blaine, Minn.

But that's where the good news turns sad: There's not enough money to send Sabrina and a coach to the competition.

Last week, Jan Willingham, St. Petersburg High School volunteers coordinator, made an appeal, and members of the Downtown Kiwanis Club contributed $520. That takes care of the air fare. But Willingham says they need another $500 to pay for food and lodging.

Walker watches over Sabrina. He monitors her diet, keeping her away from greasy foods, encouraging her to eat more fruits and vegetables. He makes sure she trains daily. Sabrina, whose family nickname is "Money," and "Mo-Jo" (her full given name is Sabrina Monique), says Walker goes with her to every track meet. (Walker, who ran track at the University of Florida, says he is also training for the Olympics in 1996.)

Talk to folks at the high school about Sabrina and she's immediately described as "very cooperative," "polite," "disciplined and well-mannered."

Her math tutor, Sara Seelke, says, "She's a wonderful girl. All I have to do is explain things for her, and she picks up very quickly. I keep up with her track events, so I'm aware of her accomplishments."

Guidance counselor Keturah Pittman says, "She has a genuine concern for others and she's liked and respected by her peers and teachers for her attitude."

Sabrina is disciplined for a girl her age, says Robb Townsend, the head coach of girls track. "She's set pretty high goals for herself and is working toward those goals. She's known for a couple of years that she has the potential to be an Olympic runner."

When you listen to Sabrina talk about her close-knit family, you understand how all these character traits developed. And although the family network is still in place, two people who loved and cared for Sabrina and Walker died recently.

Although her mother is alive, Sabrina lived with her grandmother, Rosetta Herring, from age 9 to 13. Three years ago, Mrs. Herring died at age 62 from a heart ailment. A week before her grandmother's death, Sabrina moved in with her Aunt Carol, at her aunt's request. The discipline and love she had received from her grandmother continued with her aunt. But in January, her Aunt Carol died of a stroke at age 47. Carol's sister, Ruth, immediately took Sabrina in.

"When Aunt Carol died, my grades dropped," Sabrina says softly. "I mean really dropped. I had moved in with my grandmother and she died. Then I moved with my Aunt Carol and she was dead. I felt like something was strange about me. But I know that even though they're not here, they're here in spirit.

"Sometimes I cry," she says. "And sometimes I call my best friend who used to be on the team, Tanya Williams, but now she's gone to Miami-Dade North Community College. When I graduate, I was thinking about being an interior decorator or a physical education teacher. But basically, I just want to make the Olympics."

Sabrina's mother, Andrea, 35, and Walker say it's not unusual in their family for children to be reared by other family members.

"We have a pretty strong family. In fact, the Striders Track Club was originally made up of family members," Walker says.

Walker and Sabrina say their grandmother was the backbone of the family.

"I loved my grandmother," Sabrina says. "She was my best friend. She was everything to me. She taught me discipline. If I got in trouble at school, she would whip me, but she would also sit me down and tell me what was right and what was wrong. If I needed anything, she would go get it. We were real close. She'd tell me, "You're not going to play sports this year, unless you keep your grades up."'

Walker smiles remembering how his mother listened to and respected his grandmother. He says she taught them to say, "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am." There was an automatic curfew in her home that they did not question.

Sabrina says she seems to know when Walker is depressed about his mother, and he knows when she's depressed. To relieve the sadness, they call or visit each other to talk about her preparations for college and about track.

"I have to look out for Money," Walker says, smiling at his cousin. "I tell her to carry herself like a young lady. Most people feel like athletes are tomboys. I don't want her to be a tomboy. She's really a little girl. And she continues to trip me out by doing things just like a little girl. A lot of people forget that she's still a little girl."

Coach Townsend says if Sabrina finishes in the top 4 in the 100-meter dash in Minnesota, she will be placed on the Junior Pan American Team. That means she'll represent the United States on the Junior Pan American 4 x 100 relay team. The preliminary meets for that team will take place in Spokane, Wash., and Tallahassee in July. The Junior Pan American Games will take place in Jamaica later in July.

If Sabrina finishes 5th through 8th, she will qualify for a national team that will also compete in July in Spokane, Wash., England and Spain. Expenses will be paid for by TAC.

Sabrina feels confident about her chances in Minnesota.

"Everytime I go to a track meet, Derek and I will sit down and say to each other, "We're going to do it for grandmother and mom (Carol).' That's who I'm running for."

YOU CAN HELP

Contributions for the Sabrina Herring-Kelly Fund may be sent to William Grey, principal of St. Petersburg High School, 2501 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg, Fla. 33713. Checks may be made out to Robb Townsend.

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