D.C. track and field star Tomi Rucker is performing so well that track aficionados are convinced she could become the finest all-round woman athlete the area has ever produced.
The Washington area has turned out some outstanding female track performers over the years. Such stars as silver medalist Sheila Ingram, Robin Campbell, Gwen Norman and Esther Stroy competed both nationally and internationally to give the D.C. public school system respectability in track.
Ingram (400 meters), Campbell (800 meters), and Norman (440 yards) and Stroy (quarter mile) were all excellent performers in their own right, but none possessed the all-around abilities of Tomi Rucker.
Rucker, a 16-year-old sophomore at Coolidge High School, has given every indication she can live up to the expectations of those who predict a bright future for her. She has performed in no less than 10 track and field events: the shot put, the discus, the long jump, the high jump, the 110-yard hurdles, the 220-yard hurdles, the 100-, 220- and 440-yard dashes, and the half mile.
Her introduction to track came at the age of 11. She ran for her elementary school team and later for a track club under her present coach, Adrian Dixon.
"Coach Dixon saw me run and asked me if I wanted to go to Texas," Rucker recalled. "I immediately said yes because the thought of traveling always turned me on. I like it because you get to meet so many people."
The following year Rucker entered Paul Junior High, where she developed her versatility out of necessity: "We had a small team at Paul. So I was needed to perform in several events. The more events I started to take part in, the more I wanted to do."
She went on to dominate the junior high track scene for three years, leading her team to three consecutive championships in the process. She holds many of the local records in both track and field events.
While at Paul, Rucker developed under the watchful eye of James O'Neal, who now coaches at Dunbar. O'Neal, a shrewd judge of talent, is as familiar with her potential as anyone.
"The thing that makes her so special is her adaptation to coaching," said O'Neal. "She's strong, very congenial and she always works hard to improve. But the main thing is that she possesses great ability. In all my years of coaching and following track, I have never seen a female athlete with as much versatility as Tomi."
Despite her versatility, many feel that Rucker's strongest event is the long jump. As a ninth grader, Rucker last year awed everyone with an incredible jump of 20 feet, 7 inches, outdistancing by more than two feet many of the high school and college performers.
Others claim that Rucker is best at the hurdles. Her smooth, seemingly effortless style a la Renaldo Nehemiah is something to behold.
"She still has some flaws in her techniques on the hurdles," said one of the area's most successful and respected coaches. "But she's such a hard worker that she will overcome them in time."
Meanwhile, Rucker has made a smooth transition from junior high to high school. Competing in the ongoing Interhigh against an unsually large group of talented seniors, she is holding her own so far.
Rucker already turned in a swift 24.8 seconds in the 220-yard dash at the Fairmont Heights Invitational earlier this month. At the same meet she also won the long jump with a jump of 18 feet, 1 inch and was voted outstanding female performer. At the Dogwood Invitational at the University of Virginia, also held earlier this month, she finished second in the quarter mile with a time of 57.5.
Possibly the high point of the season came last weekend at the highly regarded Penn Relays. Rucker, along with teammates Angela Washington, Lolita Milburn and Kelly Jackson, turned in a 46.5 clocking, a meet record and the fourth fastest time ever recorded by females.
Coach Dixon said Rucker's second leg was particularly important: "She really gave us a big lift. She got out fast and gave us a workable margin."
When Rucker was not burning up the track in record-breaking fashion, she was making her presence felt in field events such as the long jump. Competing against a star-studded field of seniors, she finished a respectable fifth.
Rucker, who exudes confidence as she seems to attack events, said she thrives on strong competition.
"By being a sophomore, it puts me in a good position," she said. "I know that the seniors are not going to give me anything.That makes me work harder to improve. I know that the harder I work, the more I'll be prepared for tough competition."
Rucker's prowess as an athlete is no accident. Her father John Cook, a film editor for the Bureau of National Affairs, is a former sprinter. Her mother Louise is a former swimmer. Her sister Tracy is an accomplished softball player. Brother Jehan is a musician, however.
Rucker hopes to follow in her father's footsteps and become a film editor. As far as athletic goals are concerned, she dreams of performing in the Olympic pentathalon, a grueling event suited for her all-around skills.
"The pentathalon requires a lot of hard work and versatility," she said. "But I really feel confident that I would do well."