Lynda Tolbert, a senior at Ballou High School, is undergoing an early life change at 17. Already recognized by her peers as "Grandma," she is finding out quickly the meaning of the words 'success' and 'limelight.'
After shattering records in the 55-meter hurdles at the Episcopal, George Mason and D.C. Armory track invitationals, all within a two-week interval, Tolbert, an unassuming 5-foot-3, 119-pound track star, has found herself to be the center of widespread attention and popularity.
"It (the publicity) really hasn't affected me at all," Tolbert said. "I'm still the same person I was before the season started."
Her early success this winter, stamping her as one of metropolitan Washington's finest in track and field, and her infectious smile have led her to radio and television appearances, a two-day trip to the campus of Penn State University and a place on the all-America squad voted by Track and Field magazine. And the mail and telephone calls pour in from universities the nation over.
"It's unbelievable, the mail and telephone calls I receive in a day," Tolbert said. "To avoid it all, I sometimes stay late at practice, and even spend late evenings with (Coach Philip) Faxio and his family. By the time I get home the telephone is finished ringing and I'm too tired to read mail. I'm just not ready to commit myself to anyone yet."
Tolbert's claim to the title "the best in the area" is backed by her outstanding efforts at the Episcopal/Pinnacle Invitational indoor meet the second week in December. The versatile athlete negotiated the 55-meter hurdles in 7.93 seconds, the fastest electronic time in the nation this year.
Tolbert's time was an area record, bettering the 1979 mark of 7.95 set by Benita Fitzgerald, who went on to Olympic gold in 1984. It also tied her with Carol Lewis, sister of Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, for the fifth-fastest time in the history of girls high school track.
"I saw her run last year and she was good," said Episcopal Coach Buzz Male, who spent 11 years as an assistant training and teaching girls to run the low and high hurdles. "But this year she is fantastic. Anytime an athlete can turn in a 7.93 time and not be pushed by anyone, that shows that she is a super athlete. She's in a class by herself. The best."
"Earlier in the year we had set a goal to run the 55-meter hurdles in eight seconds flat," said Faxio, now in his sixth year as Ballou's girls coach. "But I didn't expect her to alter things so early in the season.
"No, I wasn't surprised at the results," continued Faxio. "She just keeps on proving herself to me and others. She's phenomenal."
One week after her mind-boggling performance, Tolbert broke her own record of 8.34 at the George Mason Invitational, running the hurdles in 8.02. She was hand-timed in the event at 7.8.
Several days following the Mason race, Tolbert beat yet another record, her own, of course, in the D.C. Public School Invitational at the D.C. Armory. Knocking over the first hurdle, Tolbert recovered to cover the 55-meter route in a hand-clocked 7.9.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Tolbert has yet to be defeated in the Interhigh League in any track and field event she has attempted.
"Lynda is definitely receiving a lot of attention and I would be lying if I told you that the pressure wasn't getting to her," Faxio said. "But this is nothing new to her."
In one of Tolbert's most gratifying moments last spring, she reigned as the league's best when she claimed the 100-meter dash (11.7, year's fastest time), 200 meters (24.2, equaling the record set by Valerie Morton of Coolidge in 1977), long jump (18 feet 4 inches) and 110-meter hurdles (14.1, breaking former teammate Melody Robinson's record of 14.2) in the East-West Interhigh championships at Coolidge.
Her efforts allowed Ballou to win its second consecutive league championship, by 189-123 over runner-up H.D. Woodson.
Fleet as she is, Tolbert didn't exactly burst upon the Ballou scene straightaway.
"I worked hard to get where I am now," said Tolbert, over soup at her home that features a china cabinet converted into a trophy case, still not large enough to house all her medals and awards. "The success didn't come overnight."
Tolbert, who became interested in running during her seventh-grade year at Hart Junior High, found the sport to be more physical and competitive than she had bargained for. After her first day of practice, she almost decided to quit after having to nurse her entire body from aches and pains.
"I felt real terrible after that first day of practice," Tolbert said. "And when I returned to practice the next day, limping and crouched over, my teammates and friends began calling me 'Grandma.' And they still call me that now."
She managed to iron out the wrinkles and graduate with two MVP honors, supreme in the 100-yard dash, 220, 440 and long jump. From there she enrolled at Ballou, and became the Knights' 100-yard dash champion. In her junior year, Faxio, aided in his decision by assistant coach Fletcher Tinsley, decided to convert Tolbert into a hurdler.
"We agreed to let Tolbert run the hurdles because we had lost (all-Met hurdler) Melody Robinson (to graduation) and Tolbert as a sophomore had all the ingredients to be a great hurdler," Faxio said. "After her junior year, we knew she was destined to be great."
This led Faxio and Tinsley to travel with Tolbert as she began to compete nationally. They videotaped her races, helping to find flaws in her technique and form.
"What we discovered was that she needed to develop more strength in her legs and arms," Faxio said. "And we made some adjustments in her running style."
Placing Tolbert, who was then listed at 5 feet 3 and 107 pounds, on a weightlifting program proved effective.
"She's stronger now and one of her greatest assets is her endurance," Faxio said. "We're setting a goal now to run the 55-meter hurdles under 7.93. It's not difficult. The record is 7.4 set by Candy Young. We won't set a goal to reach that mark -- it would be too much pressure -- but she'll get that during college or possibly at the next Olympics."