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.