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Char Foster: fanning the flames again

Plaques and commemorations line the wall in the dining room of the Foster home, celebrating the accomplishments of the family's world-class junior sprinter, Charlynna.

There's one awarding Foster the key to the City of St. Petersburg.

There's another proclaiming Char Foster Day in Safety Harbor.

Clearwater Mayor Rita Garvey wrote a letter of congratulations.

So did Gov. Lawton Chiles.

And nearby, on another wall, hangs an oil-painted portrait of Foster that she received for being named national female track athlete of the year in 1994.

"It's not a very good likeness of Char," said Art Foster, her father and longtime coach. "It doesn't capture her spirit and personality."

Char Foster's spirit would be severely tested not long afterward. The letters and proclamations are reminders of better days for Foster, who saw her dream shattered in summer 1995.

She tested positive for a banned stimulant after winning the 400-meter hurdles in the Junior National championships and was stripped of three national titles and several age-group and Junior Olympic records.

More important, Foster lost her Olympic Trials qualifying time of 57.64 seconds in the 400 hurdles and after a two-month suspension by USA Track, failed to regain her record-setting form and could not requalify.

The test detected ephedrine, a stimulant common in decongestants. The Foster family is sure it was the result of an over-the-counter cough medicine Foster took a few weeks before the meet.

When the test results were revealed, Foster was devastated. The girl who was on the verge of competing for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team at age 16, who had won so many national championships and set so many records, was ready to quit.

Only recently has she begun to rebuild her track career. Her family moved to New Port Richey last summer from Clearwater, and Foster enrolled as a junior at Ridgewood High. She has made friends and has a new coach, Sue Vien, who shares duties with Art Foster.

She has rededicated herself to the sport after what she and her father consider a lackluster 1996. As as result, Foster has run the world's fastest outdoor and indoor junior times in the 400 meters this year. Lofty goals have been set and are expected to be met. Art Foster says his daughter has that old fire back.

But it has not been easy, Char Foster said.

"After I found out about the cough medicine thing and my times were taken away, I thought, "Why even work hard anymore,'

" she said. "I wanted to quit. I did not want to run anymore. All these years I worked so hard and then for one little thing, absolutely everything was taken away.

"I didn't understand why, and I really didn't care because I didn't want to do it any more."

So Foster told her father she was quitting. And for two weeks in fall 1995, she did.

"She wanted no part of the sport," Art Foster said. "It was embarrassing for her. I watched this kid cry every day, every day, every day."

After the initial shock, Foster had a long talk with his daughter and persuaded her to return. She began training during the suspension but was not the same when she returned to competition last year.

When Foster tried to requalify for the Olympic Trials at a meet in May in Atlanta, she could not come close to the 59.0 provisional qualifying time or the 57.80 automatic time. She ran 1:00.67, well off her personal best of 57.64.

"There was so much pressure at that meet because I had to do that time if I wanted a chance to make the Olympic team," she said. "I got so scared. It was like I had never run before."

Still, Foster was able to rebound at the U.S. Junior Nationals in July in Columbus, Ohio. She won the 400 hurdles in 58.93 to qualify for the World Junior Championships in Sydney, Australia.

But at Sydney, Foster stumbled again and failed to make the final, placing 10th.

"The only thing I cared about was winning the Junior Nationals," Foster said. "I was back on top and nothing else mattered. But after nationals, I did not practice. I didn't care about anything else. I was back on top, but in reality, I wasn't. I went to Australia and didn't do anything there."

Knowing her fragile state of mind, Foster advised his daughter against going to Sydney but did not stop her.

"Char was just going on vacation," Art Foster said. "She did not have the mental stability to compete at that level."

Foster was successful at a less lofty level last year. She competed for her father on the Clearwater Central Catholic track team and won five individual titles to lead the Marauders to the Class 3A state title.

But Art Foster knew high school competition paled compared with the national and world stage where his daughter was used to excelling.

"You look at the five state champions, the national records, but Char just went through the motions last year," Art Foster said. ". . . She just has a God-given talent, and no one tested that talent."

Including Foster herself, who admitted she did not push herself.

"I can look back and say I didn't do anything in 1996," she said. "Even though I won the five state titles, it was nothing to be proud of. I was happy for the team, but my times were not where I wanted them at all."

And after the debacle in Sydney, Foster was again ready to quit, if only for a few months, in an effort to recharge herself physically and mentally.

After the family move, she enrolled in a new school and was warmly welcomed, particularly by Vien, who has guided the highly successful Ridgewood girls track program for 12 years. The two became instant friends, and things began to change for Foster.

Vien and Ridgewood cross-country coach Glenn Cable persuaded Foster to go out for cross country last fall. Foster was hesitant because she had never run distance, but the coaches believed it would get her in shape for track.

"Actually, I never thought about running cross country," Foster said. ". . . But the coaches told me cross country would be really good for me and that I didn't have to take it seriously, just do it for fun to stay in shape.

"And I thought it would be fun. It wasn't."

That's because the competitor in Foster would not allow it. She had to take the sport seriously, and she ended up placing second at the Sunshine Athletic Conference meet.

Art Foster said running cross country rekindled his daughter's competitive fire.

"Running cross country was the best thing for that kid," he said. "It gave her a different outlook, running from behind. It was a challenge, and she used it to get back in the frame of mind she needs to compete successfully in track."

Art Foster said his daughter has matured and that Vien has helped.

"Char is a maturing young lady, and Sue can offer her some things that Dad just can't," he said. "She is a wonderful mentor who really cares about her athletes, and she has had a really positive impact on Char."

Now that Foster has recovered from the failed drug test and the subsequent subpar season, she has set some lofty goals. She said shewould like to run in the low 52s for the 400 meters, 55 or 56 seconds in the 400 hurdles, under 40 seconds in the 300 hurdles and consistently in the 13s for 100 hurdles, all world-class times.

Foster will compete for Ridgewood Friday and Saturday in the prestigious Florida Relays, where she hopes to continue her comeback. She'll run in the 100 hurdles and the 4x200 and 4x400 relays.

"I think I am capable of doing those times," Foster said. "It's my new attitude. It's the way I look at things. I have a better outlook."

Art Foster said breaking the 14-year-old national prep record of 40.18 in the 300 hurdles is his daughter's chief goal this season, and he has no doubt she can do it.

"The fire is back," he said. "I think that whole experience with the drug test has made Char a better person. She's mentally tougher. She's back and she's ready to go."

Char Foster said she hopes to return to Sydney for the 2000 Olympics and do better.

"In three more years I'll be older and more mature, and I'll be able to handle myself," she said. "I'd love to go back to Sydney and show the world how good I really am."