In each of the 2 1/2 years junior Kellie Roberts has been running on Central's track team, she has run faster than the one before.
When she went out for track as a freshman, Roberts filled in the missing link on the mile relay team of Paula Bryant, Sabrae Hilliard and Robin Benjamin. That April, Roberts, who had never run the quarter-mile faster than 57 seconds, led the relay with a 55.7 to the cheering fans at the Penn Relays.
It was the last time Central won the Penn Relays mile relay. It was the first time Roberts had ever competed in a major meet.
When she came home, her coach, Ed Bowie, tried her in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles. "I take the good 400 runners and try them all at the 300 hurdles," said Bowie. "Over the years we've had good 300 hurdlers. It's just a natural thing I do. I run them all over the hurdles in workouts and take a look."
She didn't know it when she came to Central, but Roberts, who had been running in sprints, was destined for the hurdles. For one month before the Prince George's County championships, Roberts hurdled barrier after barrier. She finished fourth in the county, won the regional and the state.
It was only her freshman year.
And it doesn't stop there.
Every summer track season, Bowie takes his hurdlers to the Junior Olympic Nationals if they qualify. Roberts qualified for the 400-meter hurdles, an event 100 meters longer than she was used to in high school. Her freshman year, in the 15-16 age group, she took second in 61.1. Her sophomore year she won the 15-16 age group with a 60.0. Later last summer, she finished third at an international meet on the Junior National team in 59.6.
Following her national-level performances, Roberts won the state 300-meter hurdles as a sophomore.
"It's hard to foresee how far she can go," Bowie said. "We don't sit down and discuss times and goals. We take certain goals at a time. As a freshman, we were hoping she could work on a talented Central team and be a contributing part of the mile relay. In the 300 hurdles, she ran well and won the state. Then in the Junior Olympics, she took second. Her immediate goal after that was to come back and win it. She ran well in the spring and made the junior national team. Now, hopefully, she can qualify again. We take it step by step."
It all seems so natural, so easy. Bowie said technique isn't the most important prerequisite for success in the 300 (or 400) hurdles. Since the hurdles are only 30 inches tall, he said speed over a quarter-mile is most imperative. Yet Roberts stands a hair over 5-feet-4 so the hurdles come pretty close to her waist.
Roberts, 16, doesn't consider that a problem. "I want to become a world-class runner some day," she said. "I think it will come naturally. As I move to bigger things, my goals will get higher. The progress itself has helped. I'm really getting into track. It motivates me to try to achieve and it's so much more interesting."
She keeps it interesting. On Jan. 4 at the George Mason Invitational, Roberts ran the second-fastest 500 meters by a U.S. high school girl. Her 50-yard victory in 1:13.71 was also a meet record.
The fact that she is the top long-distance hurdler in the state doesn't inhibit her participation in other events.
"She's been running numerous events from her freshman year," said Bowie. That year, in the state outdoor meet, Roberts won the hurdles, finished second in the quarter-mile and ran on the mile and two-mile relay teams.
"This year," he said, "it's hard to say. Indoors, she'll run the 300 and 500 and the mile relay. She'll run the 800 somewhere down the line. Outdoors this year she'll run the 400, 300 hurdles and in two other places. Last year, outdoors she ran the 200 effectively. She won the county and regional, but false-started out of the state."
Roberts said she joined the team because her sister Keisha, who graduated in 1983, ran track at Central. Unlike her sister, who did not continue competing in college, Roberts says she will. "I want to run all four years in college," she said.
"Kellie will do fine on the college level," Bowie said. "Actually, she'll be extremely successful. To qualify for the NCAA Division I in the 400 hurdles you have to do a 59.1."
Last summer Roberts ran it in 59.6. She was only 15 years old.