South African No Lone Ranger for Huskers in Hurdles
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Lehann Fourie (pronounced Lee-HAHN FOUR-ee) looks like he could be a tight end for Ron Brown, but he’s a former rugby player who has become a Nebraska track and field captain and ranks fourth nationally in the 60-meter hurdles.
A 6-foot-5, 218-pound native of South Africa, Fourie has four big reasons why he should be successful in Friday and Saturday’s 34th annual Frank Sevigne Husker Invitational, a nationally prominent meet that attracts more than 7,300 fans and athletes to the Devaney Center.
Reason No. 1 is Nebraska Assistant Coach Billy Maxwell, a renowned sprints/hurdles instructor who has coached 24 individual Big 12 champions, 28 individual NCAA champions, more than 350 NCAA All-Americans and six athletes who competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games.
A former LSU head coach and Texas assistant coach, Maxwell is in his 14th season at Nebraska. He was a catalyst for Reasons No. 2, 3 and 4 in a plan designed to take Fourie from good to great because he also recruited three of his teammates – Kirkland Thornton, Tyrell Ross and Eric Lund.
Maxwell learned long ago how great hurdlers develop and emerge. “First, you have to recruit kids with talent,” he said. “But the real secret to having great ones is having three or four of them in your program at the same time, so they compete against each other all season long.”
Fourie is good, real good . . . perhaps Big 12 Conference champion good . . . maybe even NCAA All-American good.
But he’s no superstar, at least not yet.
Great Hurdlers Need Daily Competition from Teammates
“For some reason, it’s hard to be a great hurdler if you’re out there as ‘The Lone Ranger’. You can’t become great alone,” Maxwell said. “You need somebody out there every day to train with. You need somebody to push you, to breathe down your neck.”
Right now, Thornton, a senior transfer from Eastern Illinois, is that somebody. In last Saturday’s adidas Classic, Fourie ran a personal best 7.78 in the prelims and then won the finals in 7.79. Thornton was .01 of a second behind him with a 7.80 in the finals.
“Almost needed a photo finish on that one,” Maxwell said last Saturday as he watched Fourie edge Thornton at the finish. “That’s the way those two battle all week long, and it carries over to Saturdays.”
Fourie’s prelim time last weekend ranks No. 1 in the Big 12 this season and fourth nationally. Thornton’s finals time ranks sixth nationally.
“Kirkland wins more than I do in practice because he’s a way faster sprinter than me,” Fourie said. “He beats me every time on hurdles 1, 2 and 3. To beat him, I have to make up ground on hurdles 4 and 5.”
Maxwell envisions Fourie being better outdoors than indoors “because there are five more hurdles to clear,” he said. “The longer the race, the better he is.”
Fourie’s acceleration may not be as instant as a true sprinter’s burst out of the blocks, but it’s dramatic. “Lehann has such great physical ability,” Maxwell said. “He’s very strong and powerful enough that Gary (Pepin) and I are a little surprised the football coaches haven’t been over here checking him out. He’s a great athlete and a tremendous leader.”
Pushing Each Other Above and Beyond Their Limits
Fourie laughs when he hears Maxwell and his head coach comment on his unique physique and fast feet. “Like everyone else in this state, I’m a big football fan,” Fourie said. “I think having all these good hurdlers on the same team is similar to what Nebraska has in football – the ability to keep the competition inside the team, so everyone keeps getting better all season long. It seems to be working for us, just like it works for the football team.”
So did playing rugby from ages 8 to 17 prepare him to play football? “Didn’t even know the rules of the game when I first came to Nebraska,” Fourie said. “Rugby is a rough sport. It’s continuous playing with no pads and no stopping or starting. You play offense and defense. I really enjoy following football and reading up on the rules. It’s interesting, and I try not to miss a game. But you have to be heavier to play football. In track, I’m always trying to trim down to get faster.”
Thornton has proven to be the perfect teammate. “Kirkland got really fast last year, and he’s always trying to do everything perfect,” Fourie said. “I have a goal to make the South African Olympic Team, and he’s really determined to make hurdles a career. He’s very professional in the way he runs – in practice and at meets. When I first saw his technique, I told him I thought he was as smooth as the pro hurdlers. It’s great to train with someone like him.”
The feeling is mutual. “I’ve known and watched a lot of good Nebraska hurdlers,” Thornton said. “That’s why I wanted to come here and get better myself. Lehann and I both have our sights set on the Big 12 and the NCAA, and we enjoy pushing each other to reach our goals. It’s nice to have someone on your team who’s just as good as you are, if not better. When you train and compete as hard as we do, it gives you a sense of confidence. Plus, when I get frustrated and see how much fun Lehann is having, it calms me down.”
“Everybody in the world likes Lehann Fourie. He’s just an awful lot of fun to be around,” Maxwell said. “He wants to please everybody, and he’ll work as hard as he can to do it. He has a neat way of being competitive, personally and for the benefit of the team.”
When he first met Fourie, “he seems pretty scary physically,” Thornton said. “But when you get to know him, he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. I remember missing practice once last semester, and he called me up that night to check on me. He just wanted to call and give me an encouraging word. I’d never had that in a teammate before. There’s a reason why he’s a captain. He cares.”
A Captain’s Duty: Keep Track of the Tone-Setters
Fourie chuckles when Thornton’s kind words are related to him. “As a captain, I do look out for others,” he said. “But when Kirkland gets hurt, I’m looking out for me, too, because when he’s going good, I’m going good. It’s true – we all compete pretty much like we practice.”
Billy Maxwell couldn’t have said it better himself.
He knows that depth is as important in track as it is in any other team sport.
“Lehann and Kirkland are both really good hurdlers, but Tyrell and Eric work hard, too,” Maxwell said of Ross and Lund.
Ross is the son of former Nebraska hurdler Edward Ross. “Tyrell is on our all-time top 10 hurdle charts,” Maxwell pointed out.
“He’s a natural talent,” Fourie added, “and he finished third in last year’s Big 12 indoor meet. He’d be right there with us now if he hadn’t hurt his knee. But he’s getting stronger every week in his training. He’ll be back in the thick of it again.”
Lund is that “fourth hurdler” who stays under the radar but is perhaps the group’s biggest surprise. “We recruited Eric out of Milford as an intermediate hurdler,” Maxwell said. “But when a couple of our hurdlers got hurt last year, he ran the highs at the Drake Relays, filling in on our shuttle team. He really ran well, so he runs both now. I think he’ll be a factor in both events (in the conference).”
Apparently, Eric Lund is ready to take that next step from obscurity to something much bigger.
He is, after all, another benefactor of daily and weekly competition from his talented teammates.