Not long after midday on a recent Monday, on the track at Western High School's Lumsden-Scott Stadium, Latosha Wallace noticed a drastic difference about a surface she once dominated, a surface she once called home.
Four years ago, when the 22-year-old sprinter from Baltimore last ran here, she had capped a high school career that Division I college recruiters could not ignore.
Wallace lettered all four years in track and field and cross country at Western. From 2001 to 2003, she earned All-City and All-Metro honors in indoor and outdoor track, and cross country. At the state championships in 2002, in the same meet in which she was 400-meter champion, Wallace ran the lead leg on her school's winning 1,600- and 3,200-meter relay teams, helping Western to its first state crown.
All that, of course, was before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing became a strong possibility for Wallace, a soon-to-be Arizona State graduate.
All that was before Wallace, as a senior at Western, would learn her SAT scores were not high enough to immediately run at a school like Ohio State, or for other big-time track programs that originally courted her.
It was before she knew she would spend her first two years of college, the first two years of her life away from Baltimore, in Great Bend, Kan., population 15,000.
But on this Monday, as the temperature was steadily climbing toward 100, Wallace couldn't help but talk about how smoothly the re-done track at Western was flowing beneath her soles.
"It has a bounce to it now, something runners will notice easily. It didn't have that before," Wallace said. "It used to give as much as that concrete over there."
Not being afraid to bounce around has put Wallace in position for a fine future in track.
Last month, on her first trip outside the United States, she won two gold medals at the North America, Central America and Caribbean Athletic Association Championships in San Salvador, El Salvador. She won the 400-meter hurdles in 56.54 seconds, then ran the lead leg for Team USA in the 1,600-meter relay. The team won gold with a time of 3 minutes, 29.15 seconds.
It was a good start to her post-collegiate career. Now a professional, having used her four years of college athletic eligibility - the last two at Arizona State - Wallace is focused on her December graduation and her march toward Beijing.
Far from home
But reaching these stages did not come easily, mainly because her first two years of college were spent in such an unlikely place. Wallace said Jerry Molyneaux, Western's track coach, had many schools across the country asking for her services. But her SAT scores were problematic, and Wallace didn't want to go to a top track school, but have to sit out her first year.
There was nothing but support from her family, including her father, Bruce Wallace, a Baltimore City police officer who has been in law enforcement for 19 years.
"He wanted her to go far away," said Walinda Wallace, Latosha's mother. "He didn't want her to stay here. He didn't have any problems with her leaving."
In the midst of being unnerved about her uncertain future, she received a phone call from Lyles Lashley, who at the time was the track coach at Barton County Community College in Kansas.
"[Lashley] explained to me that there is nothing in Kansas, but I will be able to have good classes that will have transferable hours," Wallace said.
Not surprisingly, Wallace would do the same thing at Barton that she did at Western: win. In two years there, she helped Barton to National Junior College Athletic Association indoor and outdoor titles. She also discovered what some now consider to be her signature event, the 400-meter hurdles. She won that event, along with running on the winning 1,600-meter meter relay, at the NJCAA championships.
Soon, Wallace's phone began to ring again, and such schools as Ohio State came back, along with other East Coast programs. But being at a Midwestern school like Barton allowed her to be on the radar of large West Coast programs.
Wallace would come to meet Dion Miller, a then-recruiter and women's sprint coach at Arizona State. Wallace chose Arizona State for its strong mass communications program and because she could be groomed by Miller in the 400 hurdles.
Miller, who recently was named the men's and women's sprints and hurdles coach at Texas Tech, his alma mater, said Wallace's versatility was most impressive.
"I can't put a number on her. I would be doing her an injustice. She's so new," Miller said. "She really has blossomed as a sprinter this past year. In time she's going to be one of the nation's best runners, whether that's long sprint, the 800, the 400 or the 400 hurdles."
Wallace said most people who see her initially don't believe she can run that fast. At only 116 pounds and with 10 percent body fat, she is not the most intimidating figure on the track. But she has been a winner everywhere.
Western had never won a state title until she ran there. Barton won two national titles in her two years there. And Arizona State is coming off a cycle in which it won indoor nationals, regionals, the Pacific-10 conference crown and then outdoor nationals - every major championship offered in a season. Miller said Wallace had a lot to with that success.
"She was definitely the backbone of our women's sprint program at Arizona State her two years there," Miller said. "She really was the core that kept that group together. Everybody thought the world of her."
Miller hopes the rest of the world will get to see Wallace run. Wallace will have about 15 to 20 Olympic qualifying meets.
Though she has had the most success the 400 hurdles, Wallace is not certain that will be her main event. Wallace and Miller said it could be the hurdles, the 400 meters or the 800 meters.
What she is certain about is her December graduation, and that the day after she will be in Lubbock, Texas, reunited with Miller, whom she has adopted as her permanent track coach. She is confident of overcoming any barriers.
"A lot of these obstacles and things like that are not foreign to me," she said, "because it's been the same thing everywhere I went."