At a recent collegiate invitational track meet, the women's sprinters, most of them at least 19 years old, competed at 55 meters. The winner had a time of 7.14 seconds, the second-place finisher was timed at 7.26.

Recently, Oxon Hill sophomore Melanie Blackless, 15, in the first half of only her second season of indoor track, won the George Mason University invitational 55 meters at 7.24, beating the best high school sprinters in the area.

At the Prince George's County indoor meet at the Naval Academy two weeks ago, the Clippers sophomore ran a 7:09, finishing fourth to upperclassmen.

"I've never had one with the strength, speed and intelligence like she has it," said Oxon Hill Coach Bernie Burns, who has been coaching high school runners for 18 years. "She's very bright, has a great amount of speed and works to make herself stronger. When she walked on to the track last year, we knew she'd be special. She just had it."

That "it" is what separates the great runners from the merely good ones.

"We have a girl on the team who's probably more all-around talented than Melanie, but she doesn't have the intensity," said Burns.

Blackless thrives on pressure and intensity.

"My intensity is what keeps me going," she said. "I want to be successful and put the best I can in track and academics. It makes me run as well as I do -- that drive for success."

She is enrolled in Oxon Hill's science and technology program, which features a rigorous academic schedule. Blackless, who says she's never earned a grade below A in her life, aspires to be a cardiologist. The death of her 14-year-old brother from heart disease when she was 9 has made her committed to achieving that career goal.

"Sometimes, the pressure is intense," said Blackless. "I want to be good in both places {track and school} and I try to balance out the time. But sometimes I just have to come home and miss practice, grades are that important to me."

Blackless is self-driven toward excellence, which, said Burns, has often created problems. "After she won at Mason {during Christmas break} I told her, 'See what a week of rest does?' when she's not up until 2 a.m. studying. Earlier in the season, I had to call her mom and tell her I knew she was up late because she was sluggish in practice. She said she wasn't aware of it, that Melanie had been going to bed and getting back up to study. She's so competitive for grades, but never wants to miss practice."

Blackless acknowledged the story was true. "Some days I get home and I'm so tired, but I've got hours of homework to do so I go to sleep and get up later to do more. But I don't want to give up anything. I don't want to give up track and I have to keep my grades up so I have to do it."

Even joining the track team last year was an extension of her scholastic goals. She said, "I wasn't doing anything and I know that to get into school you need more than grades and academics." So when a friend suggested she join the team, she agreed. And if ever fate worked to introduce an individual to her destiny, this was it.

"When she first came out, they were doing bounding drills and we noticed she had a lot of power," said assistant coach Carl Phillips. "Then one day we timed her at 7.6 in the 55 and we just turned and looked at each other. She has what most good sprinters have: She's fast, quick and has good top speed. You tend to find kids with one or two of those but not three."

Phillips has been coaching track since 1956, including a stint with the women's program at Catholic University, and he has worked with Brooks Johnson, formerly at Stanford and now the coach of Sports International.

Burns has also seen quite a few world-class athletes. And while, as a coach, he doesn't like to compare current athletes to past ones, he can tell Blackless has great potential.

"When you see the things she's accomplished in just 14 months, it's amazing," Burns said. "We constantly have to remind ourselves it's only been 14 months since she started.

"It's hard to compare her with the other runners because she's so young. The others ran before high school and she didn't, but in mental toughness, she's like Esther Story who ran the 400 meters in the '68 Olympics as a 14-year-old. Melanie has the same mental toughness, a quick mind and a burning desire to be successful at anything she does. She looks at all things; she's always asking questions; she wants to know the reasons, how to get better."

Said Blackless, "My mental toughness is what gets me to the finish line faster."

Sure enough, with every meet has come steady improvement. Last year indoors, she was fifth in the Prince George's County championships with a 7.5, third in the regionals with a 7.3 and fourth in the state with the same time. Outdoors, she won the county 100-meters race for freshmen with a 12.4, beat Eleanor Roosevelt's Dana Petty, then the reigning queen of the sprints, in the regionals at 12.3 and finished third at the Class AA state meet in 12.3 after leading for 80 meters.

"And she realized right away what she had done wrong and she understood she should not have been pressing," said Burns about the 100 race at the state meet. "She beared down and it did not work. But usually, they can't analyze what they did wrong right away. She knew."

Speed is Blackless' forte on the track, but for now, her coaches' greatest task is easing her tendency to overachieve. Among high school athletes, that is almost a welcome problem.

"My brother dying helped me grow up faster; I had to be strong for myself and strong for my mother," she said. "I had to have mental strength and that's what helps me get through the races, to be mean and tough on the track. It's the thing that gets me driving to be successful in school and in track."