Stefani and Martin Booker have done their fair share of interviews as former collegiate track and field athletes. Stefani was a sprinter at Boston University and a member of the national champion 4×200-meter relay team in 1981. Martin was a three-time All American at Villanova and ran at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1984.
But these days, they are no longer the subject of feature stories or glowing recaps of their performances. The phone now rings to inquire about their daughter, UCF sophomore sprinter Dominique Booker.
“The tables certainly have switched,” Stefani said. “She doesn’t even understand how great she is.”
Considering her family lineage, it’s not surprising that Dominique had an impressive freshman year at UCF last season. But her destiny to become a runner nearly derailed when she was 8 years old.
Roughly a decade ago, the East Orange, N.J., native competed at the Penn Relays and did so well that her parents stopped her from running on the spot.
“So many runners that start at 8-9 years old, by the time they get to be 19 they either hate track or reach their peak,” Stefani said. “Because of her dad and myself, everyone thought that she’d run track. There’s a lot of pressure with that. I wanted her to get her own identity, so we just pushed her into everything else.”
A natural athlete, Dominique excelled in everything she tried. She studied ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. She played lacrosse and basketball, and some even suggested she try out for football because of her agility, speed and strength.
In her freshman year of high school, her basketball coach was so impressed by her speed that he asked the Immaculate Conception track coach, Haneefah Norman, to come watch Dominique run suicides after practice one day. It was decided that she would join the track team in the spring.
“She walked in the room one day four years ago and said, `OK I’m ready to run,'” Stefani said. “She was very nonchalant. She ran and won the state meet two months later.”
At first, Dominique was reluctant to use her parents as resources. Back then, she viewed them as her harshest critics and oftentimes felt overloaded with their advice. At one state meet, before her race in the 200, her mother threw in some last-minute pointers of how she should run the race. It shook Dominique so badly that she choked in the event.
“I ran into the bushes and hid from both of them until the meet was over. I still had to run the 4×4 and they were trying to look for me,” Dominique recalled, now with a smile on her face. “This is why I didn’t want to do track because I didn’t want to listen to them. Over time, the three of us matured with each other. They started to realize that Dominique is Dominique. You’re not going to change the way I think. They started realizing we can’t make her run like we did. Now I listen to them. Sometimes they have to balance between coach and parent, but I do value what they say.”
By the time she graduated Immaculate Conception High School, she had set 11 school, six conference, four county and three state records. She decided on UCF in large part because of head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert’s loyalty during the recruiting process.
Dominique wasted no time contributing to the program, emerging as a C-USA Indoor and Outdoor champion and an NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships qualifier.
Although she was one of a school-record 12 student-athletes to represent UCF at the NCAA Outdoor East Preliminaries, a left hamstring strain forced her to attend the NCAA Outdoor Championships as an alternate rather than a starter for the 4×100- meter relay team. She put on a brave face for her teammates, but she was a wreck inside.
“They were warming up and I was warming up with them. We prayed over the baton and then they said, `OK let’s strip down,’ and I started to unzip, getting ready, and then I realized, I’m not running,” Dominique said. “Tears started coming to my eyes. That’s the worst feeling ever to have. Last year showed me that I care about track and that I want it more than I thought I wanted it. That’s where my drive came from even more for this year.”
This year – an Olympic year – is full of possibilities for Dominique. She has had talks with both of her parents about the arduous road to get to London, and she is determined to make her sophomore year a memorable one.
“My sophomore year I qualified for the trials,” her father, Martin, said. “From day one of that year, I dedicated my season to doing the right things: a lot of sleep, a lot of eating right, focusing on school work and track. I shared that with her just hoping that maybe she’ll listen and learn from what I’ve done. Maybe at this time and age, she can see it is commitment that one has to have to be exceptional and reach that plateau of the Olympic trials.”
Added her mother, Stefani: “I see her as an Olympian, hands down, no question. It’s all what she wants, but she can be an Olympian.”
Only time will tell.