Feb. 24, 2011
By Larry Watts
It’s been over 30 years, but Celena Mondie-Milner remembers her first track meet in Milledgeville, Ga.
“A 50-yard dash,’’ says Mondie-Milner, who has served as the director of orientation and new student programs at Clayton State University in Morrow, Ga. for the past five years. “I was dressed to the nines, wearing a hot felt suit and Converse high-tops. I thought I was going to set a world record. The gun went off, and I fell flat on my face.
“I remember looking up and seeing a boy I had a crush on, and he was laughing. I got up and it became a show-you moment. I closed my eyes and had the worst form in the world with my arms flailing and head tilted back. With about five yards remaining, I realized I had won the race and thought ‘Maybe I have something here.’’’
One face plant and many races later, by the time Mondie-Milner retired from her professional career in 2000, she had been to four U.S. Olympic Trials, was an 18-time All-American (10 individual, 8 relays) and had captured 19 Big Ten titles (10 individual, 9 relays).
And her inspiration in track all began at the age of eight, when she watched a movie on the legendary Wilma Rudolph. Overcoming a polio virus as a young child, which required her to wear a brace on her left leg, Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track at the 1960 Olympics.
“I was just amazed at her sheer will to overcome so much difficulty to cope with in life and become the world’s best female athlete,’’ Mondie-Milner says. “That movie was a defining moment for me. Even at the age of 8, I understood that regardless of the hand you are dealt, you could launch yourself into many different opportunities you never imagined would come true as long as you had support from family members and others around you.
“I go back and look at some of my writings when I was very young and two things are very true about what I wanted to do when I grew up: be a track and field star and do something relevant to education. Those things have always resonated with me.’’
As a youngster, Mondie-Milner participated in softball and basketball, but her true love was always track. She only won one state track title (on a 4x400 relay) at Baldwin High School, but she still managed to make an impact on the national scene during the summer through the Quicksilver Track Club in Atlanta. She won six national individual titles, including the 100 three times, and four relay titles. At the age of 15, she had one of the fastest 400 times in the nation for her age group.
“I tell students all the time I was never an individual state champion,’’ she says. “Your success is still dictated by choice rather than chance. I chose to continue beyond high school and became one of the world’s best. The potential is there if you are willing to put in the work to reach those goals. Many students in high school are still in development stages so you can continue to write your success story.’’
After receiving between 18 and 20 offers, Mondie-Milner figured she would be writing her success story at Florida State, where Gary Winckler was guiding the women’s track program. But while her daughter was competing at a national meet in Iowa, Mondie-Milner’s mother spotted Winckler, and he wasn’t wearing Florida State colors.
“He had on Illinois stuff and I didn’t know hardly anything about Illinois,’’ she says. “So I came up to visit Illinois on the coldest day of the year and there was snow everywhere. All I could think about was how do they run in all this snow. That’s when I found out about indoor track and I had never been on an indoor track before.’’
Mondie-Milner had already visited Michigan State, Georgia and Georgia Tech before she reached Champaign. The only thing she knew about Illinois was that Winckler was the head coach. But by the time she left, she canceled her fifth visit to UCLA.
“Illinois was the most well-balanced situation for me,’’ she says. “I was a 3.0 student in high school and earning a degree was very important to me. I was really impressed with the resources for student-athletes and my entire visit was just wonderful. Of course, I was already sold on Gary Winckler.’’
Not only did Mondie-Milner earn her bachelor’s degree in speech communication, but she also thrived under Winckler’s tutelage. Starting in her sophomore year (1988), the 5-foot-7 sprint standout started a string of three consecutive Big Ten outdoor titles in both the 100 and 200. She also pocketed Big Ten indoor titles in both the 55 and 200 as a junior and senior. Her time of 6.73 in the 55 as a junior is a retired conference record. She also set Big Ten outdoor marks in the 100 (11.34), 200 (22.66) and 400 (51.14) as well as the 200 indoor record (23.33).
“We held our indoor meets in the Armory and indoor track was very unfamiliar territory and scary for me,’’ she says with a laugh. “Those turns were very tight and I had a lot of trouble running in a straight line.
“Gary was such a wonderful role model. He had a master’s degree in mathematics and was very smart. A lot of the ideas he generated were cutting edge for sprinters and hurdlers. He was always trying to think of ways to get the athletes to be more efficient and train to their fullest potential. No matter how painful the workouts were for me, I knew there was a method to his madness and he did a great job of explaining and guiding.’’
Mondie-Milner, who was selected to the Big Ten’s All-Decade Team, collected her first outdoor All-America honor (seventh) as a freshman with the Illini’s 4x100 relay team. She collected a third in the 400 at the NCAA outdoor meet as a junior and came back as a senior to take second in the 100 and third in the 200.
When she turned 21 just before entering her senior year, she added Milner to her last name as a tribute to her stepfather.
After her sophomore year, Mondie-Milner took fourth in the 400 at the USA Outdoor Championships, earning herself a berth in the Olympic Trials, where she took fifth in the 400 semifinals and eighth in the 200 semifinals.
“I was scared to death,’’ Mondie-Milner says of her first Olympic Trials experience. “I remember lining up for the 200 and I had this can-do attitude. Then I looked over and saw Florence Griffith-Joyner, who had just set the world record in the 100 two days earlier. I knew this was going to be a fast race!
“I felt like I was running my lifetime best and then Flo-Jo blew past me on the turn. I looked down to make sure my shoes were still on. That was a learning experience, but through Gary’s training and support I got mentally tougher and realized I put my shoes on the same way everyone else did.’’
She would also attempt to make the Olympic team in 1992, 1996 and 2000. She was sixth in the 400 quarterfinals in 1992 and fifth in the 100 semifinals in 1996.
“That fifth in the 100 was hard to handle,’’ she says. “It was a photo finish and took the officials 45 minutes to make a decision. I was wearing blue and the other girl was in red and the red projected more across the finish line.’’
Mondie-Milner took one last crack at the Olympics in 2000 before finally calling it quits due to hamstring problems. She advanced through the 400 quarterfinals but abandoned the 200 after the first heat due to the injury.
“Things just didn’t pan out, but I have no regrets about my college days or my career afterward,’’ she says. “Coming from such a small town, I have been exposed to so many wonderful things and a lot of dreams have come true for me.’’
Before ending her career, Mondie-Milner managed to post a personal best of 51.08 in the 400. She also had personal bests of 11.17 in the 100 (1996) and 22.55 in the 200 (1996).
In addition to her Olympic attempts, Mondie-Milner competed in the World Championships in 1995 and 1997. She won a gold medal with the 4x100 team in 1995 in Goteborg, Sweden after taking thirds in both the 100 and 200 at the USA Track and Field Championships.
After receiving her undergrad degree from Illinois, she spent time training and then had surgery to repair nerve damage in her left foot. She then started mentoring student-athletes and working on her master’s degree in educational leadership at the University of Texas before returning to the University of Illinois in 1995. She remained in Champaign, where she completed her degree and for nearly four years worked as an intern in the athletic department, while providing academic support for track, wrestling and gymnastics. Then when Illinois assistant Ron Garner got the call as head track coach at Clemson in 1998, he took her along as an assistant.
“I loved it at Clemson,’’ she says. “We made history, winning the first conference outdoor title in eight years.’’
However, Mondie-Milner only stayed one season at Clemson because she had married Walker Watkins, a former All-American in football and track at LSU, toward the end of 1998. At the end of the school year, they moved to Marietta, Ga., where they have resided for nearly 12 years.
“Adding another hyphen to my name was out of the question,’’ she says with a laugh. “I answer to either Mondie-Milner or Watkins.’’
She and her husband used to go out for runs together, but that didn’t last long.
“These were supposed to be nice light jogs, but they always turned into full-out sprints,’’ she says. “Even though he was much faster, it never stopped me from trying. We finally realized we could not do a full-out sprint for two miles or someone might get hurt, so we decided to stop.’’
For Mondie-Milner, picking a highlight from her track career is like throwing a dart at a world map. She has traveled the globe in her sport and has filled up nearly two passports.
“I have had so many phenomenal experiences and been exposed to so many cultures and people,’’ she says. “And then interacting with all these world-class athletes, you find so much substance and make connections beyond athletics.’’
One of her most memorable experiences though was meeting Wilma Rudolph during the Olympic Trials in 1988, six years before she died of brain and throat cancer.
“I met her in a hotel,’’ she says. “Everything I had ever imagined and dreamed about as a person came to fruition right before my eyes. I was nearly speechless.
“She was the most humble person I have ever interacted with and the most surprising thing is she made you feel like she had known you your entire life. She actually knew my name, what I was competing in and wished me well. She had no idea what that meant to me; it was a life-changing moment.’’
Another life-changing moment was the birth of her son, Jase, two years ago.
“I thought track and field was a real balancing act, but this (parenthood and jobs) is new territory for us,’’ she says with a laugh. “It looks like both of us are coming out of retirement because Jase is running everywhere and it’s a real test to keep up with him.’’