After The Gold, Some Glitter

Overshadowed at L.A. despite her heroics, Valerie Brisco-Hooks has begun to get deserved recognition
June 02, 1985

Frantically, Valerie Brisco-Hooks scanned the bleachers, looking for her father as she struggled to carry her 3-year-old son off the track at UCLA's Drake Stadium.

"Daddy! Daddy, come get him. He's got to go."

Alvin Hooks Jr. squirmed around to look back at the sprinters participating in an all-comers meet while his mother wrestled him against her thighs.

"He's already gone," Arguster Brisco informed his daughter.

"Well, he's got to go again."

A startled look came across her face.

"Oh no, you didn't!" Brisco-Hooks quickly checked her black tights. "You did! Daddy!" But it was her husband, Alvin Hooks, who scooped up Alvin Jr. and repaired to the family car, an $18,000 black Saab turbo, where he quickly changed his son's clothes.

Brisco-Hooks, the Olympic triple gold medalist, has been practicing this balancing act for the last three years. At the L.A. Games she won both the 200 and 400 meters and ran a leg on the winning 4 X 400 relay.

No one of either sex had ever won gold medals in both the 200 and 400 in one Olympics, and Brisco-Hooks's leg in the 4 X 400-meter relay made her the first American woman to win three track and field gold medals since Wilma Rudolph's unprecedented triple of the 100, 200 and 4 X 100 relay in 1960—the year Brisco-Hooks was born. Brisco-Hooks set indoor marks at 220, 440 and 500 yards last winter, her first season of indoor meets. And she has resumed outdoor competition, most recently winning the 200 at the UCLA/Pepsi Invitational in Los Angeles on May 18 and the 100 at the Bruce Jenner meet in San Jose on May 25.

"The incentive to keep me going until the 1988 Olympics is simple," Brisco-Hooks says. "I want to hold every world record from the 200 to the 400, indoors and outdoors." She pauses for a moment, then adds, "And the 100 isn't impossible."

With each victory and record, Brisco-Hooks builds on an inspiring story that is fast becoming part of track and field lore: how she went through hell to lose the 40 pounds she had gained while pregnant and how her husband, Alvin, put his own NFL career on hold so that she could return from a three-year layoff to make Olympic history in her hometown. One network is negotiating for rights to a TV movie of Brisco-Hooks's Olympic triumph, and her life story is scheduled to be a book.

With her Olympic success has come an easier life for Brisco-Hooks and her family. Her income for 1984, most of it earned after the Games, was upwards of $180,000. For two years Valerie, Alvin and Alvin Jr. lived with eight other adults and several children in her parents' modest south-central Los Angeles home. There, Brisco-Hooks's wardrobe filled the entire living room walk-in closet. Last month, she and Alvin bought a three-bedroom townhouse condominium in Inglewood.

It has taken the better part of a year for Brisco-Hooks to reach the recognition level that her coach and mentor, Bob Kersee, had predicted for her before the Olympics. After the Trials last June, she boasted, "Bobby tells me I'll become the queen of the Olympics."

Kersee, now the women's track and field coach at UCLA, first coached Valerie in 1979 when she was a freshman at Cal State—Northridge. She left school in 1981 to marry Hooks, then moved to Philadelphia for his rookie season with the Eagles. In 1983, after Alvin Jr. was born, she decided to get back to running, and it was to Kersee that she went for coaching. But first she had to shed those 40 postpregnancy pounds. This she did in only two months, with stringent dieting and a daily sweat routine that involved running in place in the bathroom, with the shower steaming, while wrapped in cellophane, tights and sweats. When she felt ready, she ventured outside, and in April she went to Kersee for help.

Clearly, their relationship is a close one. Perhaps the most memorable impression of Brisco-Hooks at the Olympics is of her being hugged and wrestled to the ground by Kersee in celebration after she won the 400. Kersee had jumped out of the stands and sprinted across the field, only later thinking he "could have been shot by a sniper mistaking me for a terrorist."

By nature, Kersee is a man of calculating coolness. He's more than a little secretive about his training methods, preferring instead to discuss his "critical zone philosophy" of running sprints. He considers the 200, for example, to comprise the curve, the straightaway and the stretch, and so he divides his training for the race into uneven splits. The way he guided Brisco-Hooks's comeback—through Spartan training and selective competition that brought her to her peak at the Olympics—has earned him raves as a "master tactician."

The queen of the '84 Olympics, though, was not Brisco-Hooks but Mary Lou Retton, who won the hearts of television viewers, if only a single gold medal. Disappointed, Brisco-Hooks lamented that even "Mary [Decker] got more publicity for falling down than I got for winning." Kersee himself now notes that "the Olympics were not Valerie's crowning as much as they were a starting point to her greatness ahead. She's proven that already."

Alvin Hooks, who is Kersee's assistant on the World Class Athletic Club team, agrees, saying that the indoor records Brisco-Hooks set last winter should have convinced any skeptics that Valerie's three gold medals in the Olympics were no fluke.

Brisco-Hooks's indoor season also included a crowd-pleasing, spirited rivalry with sprinter Diane Dixon. The two women raced against each other three times, with Brisco-Hooks winning twice and Dixon once. There had been rumors of a feud between the two, and it was brought to a head at the U.S. Olympic Invitational in East Rutherford, N.J. in February. They raced to an apparent photo finish, but Brisco-Hooks was quickly declared the winner, a decision that prompted Dixon's coach, Fred Thompson, to file a protest. The protest was initially upheld, but officials wouldn't change the results of the race because, they said, Thompson had filed the protest too late.

There is no mistaking Brisco-Hooks wherever she goes. She is a 5'7", 135-pound athletic fashion plate, complete with $4,000 gold watch, compliments of her new sponsor, the Ebel Swiss watch company. Ah, elegance. But note, too, the chain necklaces and bracelets of gold, the big rhinestone earrings, the punk rock sun-shades she sometimes wears while running, now that contact lenses have replaced her bulky eyeglasses, and, of course, the familiar cascades of corn-row braids. Then catch her pumping iron in the UCLA weight room—the eyeliner and burgundy lipstick still perfect on her face—while a stereo blasts Madonna's Material Girl, and you might think you've just found the daughter of Mr. T. The gold-edged front tooth (actually the edging was silver, but it appeared to be gold) has been covered, at Kersee's urging, by an enamel crown. Especially among strangers, the smile is no longer shy but inviting, almost flirtatious.

"I feel that I smile differently now," says Brisco-Hooks, "but I didn't think it was noticeable. The rest of me hasn't changed. I'm still Valerie." Perhaps she's just more finely tuned. It's obvious that she's grooming herself to attract more commercial endorsements.

Comparison with the controversial commercialization of Carl Lewis is a sensitive topic, though Kersee is candid about his plans for Valerie. "My goal over the next four years is to develop her not only athletically but also socially and commercially," he says. "I want her to be prepared to market herself, if that's what she wants."

To that end, for the first time since the Olympics, Brisco-Hooks returned to the Los Angeles Coliseum last month to narrate and appear in a public service anti-drug abuse film to be shown at public schools. "Sometimes the pressure can be less friendly," she said, delivering her message to the camera. "This is what we call 'I-dare-you' pressure."

With only a quick rehearsal, Brisco-Hooks breezed through the first take, but it required dozens more to get everything perfect for a print. The film crew worked comfortably in shirtsleeves, but Brisco-Hooks's role required her to wear her Olympic warmups in the 84° heat. When the director complained about how long the filming was taking, she said, "Hey, I'm doing the best work of my life here."

During a break Brisco-Hooks was asked about Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia, the women's world-record holder at 400 and 800 meters who had missed the Olympics because of the Soviet-bloc boycott, as had 200 world-record holder Marita Koch of East Germany. Kratochvilova had beaten Brisco-Hooks in all four of their post-Olympic trials in Europe, and would be making her U.S. outdoor debut with appearances at the Pepsi and two Grand Prix meets.

"I probably won't be running against Jarmila unless she's running the 200," said Brisco-Hooks. That was the case at the Pepsi meet. The Czech won both the 400 and the 800, and Brisco-Hooks won the 200. Nevertheless, she believes the 400 to be her best race.

"I'll be going for the 200 record first," Brisco-Hooks said, "and all my concentration and effort will be on that race until I do break it."

Koch's world record is 21.71. Brisco-Hooks's winning time at the Olympics was 21.81, the fifth best of all time. Her 48.83 in the Olympic 400 was the 10th best ever; Kratochvilova's record is 47.99. Kersee foresees Brisco-Hooks setting new records with times of 21.61 in the 200, 47.80 in the 400 and, yes, 10.70 in the 100. Evelyn Ashford, who is not competing this year because she is expecting a baby, holds the world 100 record of 10.76.

"Valerie ran against everybody last year, win, lose or draw," says Kersee. "This year she's going to pick and choose her races and make people run against her. I think some people who might have been a little skeptical of what she did in the Olympics may be ignorant of the fact that in winning her individual gold medals, she broke the Olympic records held by the people they say she would have lost to."

Brisco-Hooks's filming at the Coliseum wound up becoming a 10-hour day. "And I was on time, too, Bobby," Brisco-Hooks told Kersee when she called to tell him how it had gone. Kersee laughed, for Brisco-Hooks is notoriously tardy. "There's standard time," he says, "and then there's Valerie time."

If Brisco-Hooks is slightly prima donna-ish and admittedly impatient with training, Kersee, 31, could pass for a drill sergeant. He is also a licensed Baptist minister. An associate at St. Luke's Baptist Church in Long Beach, Kersee considers the athletes he coaches to be his real congregation. "In a sense they are my ministry," he says.

And he leaves no question as to who is in charge. After a recent interview in which Brisco-Hooks said she would never run the 800 and that her coach would not ask her to because "Bobby would get his feelings hurt," Brisco-Hooks found herself entered in a new event at a small meet at Cal State Poly-Pomona: the 800.

"And I'm supposed to call Track & Field News," Brisco-Hooks said, "and tell them that I do run the 800 when Bobby tells me to."

So impressed was Alvin with Kersee's handling of Valerie that he has turned to him for training in an attempt at an athletic comeback of his own. He was a wide receiver for the Eagles in 1981, but he injured a knee in 1982 and was released. He was picked up, then cut by the USFL's Los Angeles Express in 1983, and he failed the Buffalo Bills' physical just before the Olympics. Now, Hooks is following much the same running and weight training program his wife does, and hoping for an invitation to some NFL team's training camp in July.

Hooks met Valerie at Cal State-Northridge in 1979, and they were married 2½ years later when he was with the Eagles. When little Alvin came along, it appeared that Brisco-Hooks would be running a household, not world class track. "I know now that I'd go crazy if I had to stay home as a housewife," she says. "That's not me. I feel I'm a good mother and a good wife. I just don't think you have to stay at home to be those things. Alvin's very special to understand me the way he does."

"Being an athlete myself, I knew what it was like to have goals and to have obstacles in front of them," says Hooks. "What I told Valerie was, 'Don't worry. Do what you have to do. I'm behind you 100 percent, and I'll do what has to be done to make it easier on you.' "

Nor should one forget the upbringing given Valerie by Arguster and Guitherea Brisco. The sixth of 10 children, she was born in Greenwood, Miss. The family moved to Los Angeles when she was five. In 1974 Valerie's brother Robert, 18, was killed by a stray bullet while running on the Locke High School track near Watts. Valerie was particularly close to Robert, who had urged her to compete in track, and she admits that for motivation she draws from her deep well of feeling for him. Her family was devastated by Robert's death, yet Arguster Brisco speaks with sadness when he mentions the fact that the youth accused of the shooting was later killed in unrelated violence.

"That boy's death really disturbed me," Brisco says. "No matter what he did, I was hurt when I learned he had been killed. The Lord's commandment is very clear: Thou shalt not kill."

"That's Daddy," says Brisco-Hooks. "I know my talent is God-given and all, but I'm not religious like he is and certainly nothing like Bobby. I mean, I like to go to discos with my girlfriends too much."

"Valerie's still the same ol' girl I met and fell in love with," Hooks said as he set off for the center of the UCLA infield to get his wife a new pair of running spikes from a batch that had just been delivered.

"Size 5½, Alvin," Brisco-Hooks reminded him.

"And Alvin," she called out again. "Get the ones that have the Day-Glo green markings on the sides."

PHOTORICH CLARKSONBrisco-Hooks (364) reached for glory and a second Olympic gold in the 200 meters. PHOTOJOHN MCDONOUGH[See caption above.] PHOTOCARL IWASAKIIt requires a strong hand like Kersee's to keep the stubborn Brisco-Hooks on track. PHOTOCARL IWASAKIBrisco-Hooks's lifting seems easy compared with carrying around 40 postnatal pounds. PHOTOJOHN MCDONOUGHNowadays nothing comes between Valerie and her Alvins, here at the UCLA/Pepsi meet. PHOTOCARL IWASAKIBrisco-Hooks is approaching her career one step at a time.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)