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In the world of track and field, Aliann Pompey has been underestimated since she first materialized at Manhattan College's Riverdale campus in the late 20th century. But Pompey was impossible to overlook in 2000, when, from 10 meters behind at the midway point in the 400-meter run at the NCAA Indoor Championships, she ran down Miki Barber of South Carolina to become Manhattan's first-ever female national collegiate track titleholder.
And in 2002, against the best that Britain and other track powers could muster, Pompey took the 400-meter gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, upsetting the favorite, former world indoor champion Sandi Richards of Jamaica. Pompey's Commonwealth triumph resulted in her being named Guyana's 2002 Female Athlete of the Year and sent her back to her homeland for "a homecoming celebration that lasted a whole week," she beams. "I met with a lot of schoolchildren and did a lot of TV shows and radio interviews. I was the first female to win Commonwealth gold and the second person ever from Guyana. The first was Phil Edwards [an 880-yard runner] 68 years ago."
On January 25, Jearl Miles-Clark, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for the U.S. in the 4 x 400 relay, came from Tennessee to New York's Armory Track & Field Center with the publicized goal of smashing the world and American records in the 500-meter run. Not one pundit suggested that Aliann Tabitha Omalara Pompey, now a Bronx resident and a Manhattan College MBA candidate, was on hand to do anything more than fill out the field behind Miles-Clark. The Tennessean seemed to have the race well in hand through 400 meters until, sure enough, Pompey swooped past and jetted to the finish line more than a full second in front. Taciturn and deadpan, Pompey declared, "I try not to go out in a race thinking about second place."
Joe Ryan, who has coached Pompey for seven years, first perceived her as "very quiet, extremely quiet," adding, "Your initial impression upon meeting her would be 'there's no way that this girl is an athlete.' However, having said that, when she is on the track, she's an absolute tiger. There's a real contrast between the person you see on the track and off of it. It's very, very pronounced. She's the most humble athlete I've ever coached, and in the sprinting game, that's very, very unusual. But when that gun goes off, she's kind of like a fighter pilot. There's a real, real fire in her eyes. It's fantastic to see."
It's not just her lack of swagger that makes Pompey an anomaly among 400-meter stars. Pompey is 5-6 but weighs only 106 pounds. Miles-Clark, the leading American, is an imposing 5-7 and 132 pounds, the same size as Ana Guevara of Mexico, the top 400-meter athlete in the world in 2002. Marie-Jose Perec of France, the 1992 and 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the 400, was a powerfully long-legged 5-11.
It's her "scrawny" size that drew Pompey, now 25, into track in the first place. She's the oldest of eight children in a family that moved from Guyana to the Albany County town of Cohoes in 1992. Her sister Allison was a track star in Cohoes. "Everyone knew her. They used to think she was the reason I started track," explains Pompey, who makes clear that the reason was "I was really light in high school. The doctor told my dad I need physical activity, maybe to get out more and put more weight on."
So, at the end of her junior year, Pompey joined her sister on the track team. Her success was stunning and virtually instantaneous. Ask her when she first realized she had talent in the sport and she'll mention the qualifying meet for the New York State Championships her senior year, when, for the first time, she beat her sister, in a 200-meter race. "I said, 'Wait a minute. She's been good all these years. This is her thing.' Maybe there's a little bit more to this than just running around in an oval." Pompey went on to win the 400 at the state championship. "I was the first person in my high school to do that," she says, smiling at the memory and adding, "I haven't put on much weight, but what I did put on was muscle." Meanwhile, Pompey was a happy bargain for Manhattan's track program, which had signed her when, recalls Ryan, "there really wasn't any indication that something like that championship was going to happen."
Most of Pompey's major wins in the 400 have come in nerve-rackingly dramatic come-from-behind fashion. She once vowed to change that tactic, but now demurs, insisting she has little choice. "It's not a tactic as much as it is a running style," she says. "I'm not a true sprinter. I can only go out in the 200 at a certain pace and maintain for the last 200." Miles-Clark has competed well in the 200, and Perec actually won the 200-meter gold in Atlanta in '96, but Pompey realizes that, for herself, "I'm more of an endurance runner than a speed runner. I've tried going out faster before, and the last 200 was truly horrible. It's just best, basically, to go out at a comfortable pace, and I finish well." She's not a distinctive 400-meter "stylist" by choice, in her words: "It's not like I'm trying to do something new. It's just the way my body's built."
Her size may actually hold the key to her track success. "If she's with girls that are much larger, over the last 50 meters she's probably going to beat them," Ryan says. "She doesn't generate as much lactic acid as the bigger sprinter. Consequently, she's fatiguing a lot less over the last part of the race."
Pompey can be spotted doing hill work in Van Cortlandt Park or other parts of Riverdale. An eager trainer, she runs in Manhattan's Jadwin Gym track in the winter, but in warmer weather will sprint on Columbia's Wien Stadium track, near the north end of Inwood Park. Ryan, who says that after seven years Pompey "can almost read my mind," says his biggest challenge may be getting her "to back off from working too hard. That's where injuries come."
Having begun running somewhat belatedly, with modest expectations, Pompey relishes her success at the world-class level. "It's been really good. Everybody has a low moment in their lives," she observes. "There have actually been some times when I really felt that the only thing I had going for me at times was track, whether that was realistic or not."
But running "took a back seat" to her education until she suffered her first big injury, a stress fracture in her tibia, near the knee, after being tripped in a meet in Nebraska in 1998. "I was stubborn," she recalls. "I was running on it until I couldn't bear the pain, and I had to sit out a whole year. That really hurt." And she learned how important track was to herthe ordeal left her "completely distraught." She recalls, "Track was this big thing for me all of the sudden. I thought I wouldn't be able to do it anymore."
But in 2003, she's as good as she's ever been, and will compete for Guyana in the World Championships in Paris this August. Recovering and returning to the track, says Pompey, "I knew I was really blessed to be doing this because it's something that I like. It's like I'm playing a game for a job now."