NEW ORLEANS -- Rochelle Stevens hears the voice at 350 meters, just when her legs are aching and her arms are tiring, just when she needs that little push to run beyond pain to the finish.
"Legs up, girl," the voice screams. "Legs up."
Sometimes, Stevens just wants to turn her head and shout back at that woman who is standing by the fence, screaming. But because the woman is her mother, Stevens fixes her eyes straight ahead and sprints through the pain.
"My mom says, 'Run,' and I run," Stevens said.
Four years after graduating from Morgan State and leaving the world of track and field in tears, Stevens is back running her signature race, the 400 meters. But, this time, she is accompanied by her mother, Beatrice Holloway.
For the past two years, they have worked together to rebuild Stevens' career. And tonight in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, they expect to walk together out of Tad Gormley Stadium to begin a final journey to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
After three preliminaries, Stevens has emerged as the favorite to win the women's 400. Using a strategy built on caution and experience, she has dominated her races with a series of closing bursts.
"I didn't come here to place," Stevens said. "I came here to win."
At 27, Stevens is reaching a competitive peak. She is 5 feet 7 and weighs 120 pounds, and primps before each race with makeup and red lipstick. Her long nails are painted red, white and blue.
"That reminds me I'm going for the gold," she said.
But it was only four years ago that Stevens quit the sport in disgust after being eliminated at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis. She had entered the 400 confident of her talents. But, after struggling in the first preliminary, she never felt comfortable, and missed gaining a spot on the 4 x 400 relay by one place.
"People just whipped by me," she said. "I was mentally destroyed."
After graduating from Morgan State in 1988, Stevens went back home to Memphis, Tenn., and worked for six months in a photo studio. She refused to watch the Olympics, even cried and fled her family's living room every time the Olympic anthem played on the television set.
"I was burned out," Stevens said.
But, six months after failing to advance from the trials, Stevens resumed her career. She had some small successes. She started to make money on the European circuit. She was looking for a breakthrough. That's when she finally decided to seek her mother's counsel.
For one year, Holloway had been a Tennessee State Tigerbelle, running for a crusty coaching genius named Ed Temple. But her career ended with the birth of Rochelle, the oldest of her three daughters.
"I've always been there for Rochelle, through junior high school and high school," said Holloway, on leave from her job in the transportation department with the Memphis public schools. "She'd finish her races, and I'd be there to critique her and encourage her."
The first practices were difficult. The mother demanding, the daughter following orders.
"She's not my mom on the track, she's my coach," Stevens said. "My mom can say things to me that others can't. Things like, 'Girl, run your butt off.' My mom is a real coach. We don't talk a lot on the track. But, at home, she's my mom again."
Without any sponsors, Stevens has trained full time this year. Friends supply meals. A fund-raiser in Memphis added a few thousand dollars to her bank account.
"I'm not rich," Stevens said. "But I'm not poor either."
At least she doesn't have to pay her coach.
Holloway has added to her knowledge of running by digging through books, consulting with other coaches and watching videotapes. Her talent, she said, is as a motivator.
"You have to get the athlete to want to perform," she said. "It's all about knowing your athlete and her potential. Rochelle works hard. She pushes herself. She knows what it takes to win."
And in New Orleans, to win, Stevens has dealt not only with the competitive heat generated by her opponents, but also the oppressive temperature and humidity of New Orleans. To prepare for the weather, Stevens turned off the air conditioner in her home and her car.
"I drove around Memphis with my windows rolled up," Stevens said. "A hot car got me here."
But it will take strong legs and the loud orders from a woman standing by a fence to get Stevens to Barcelona.
"I believe it will take 49 seconds to win the 400," Stevens said. "And I believe I'm the runner who can do it. That's what my mom tells me."