March 24, 1980 12:00 PM

When the 1,600-meter girls’ relay team from San Gorgonio High in San Bernardino, Calif. set a U.S. scholastic record last year, the summary looked like a typographical error: 3:44.1 (Howard-Howard-Howard-Howard). But neither the remarkable time nor the names were wrong. It was instead a breakthrough by what could be called the first (and certainly the fastest) family of U.S. women’s track—the Howard sisters, Artra, 18, Sherri, 17, Tina, 16, and Denean, 15.

Their performance brought them an invitation to compete for the Santa Monica-based Muhammad Ali Track Club. And though they have yet to run as a family for Ali, Sherri and Denean were part of the club’s four-woman relay team that set a national indoor record for the mile last month at Madison Square Garden. “We compete against each other,” Sherri explains, “but we’re friends, helping each other if things go bad.”

That notion is encouraged by their father, Eugene, 40, an Air Force sergeant who plans to retire next month after 20 years. “All I want is for the girls to have healthy lives,” he says, “and not feel cheated out of anything.” Howard himself was a fine high school athlete in Detroit—all-state in track and baseball. His 40-year-old wife, Barbara, ran with a sister and two cousins on her high school relay team in Dallas in the late ’50s. Their 440-yard school record still stands.

The Howard girls are scholastic stars as well, with grade averages between 3.5 and 3.9. Next year Sherri plans to join Artra (who is finishing up at Pierce College in Woodland Hills) at Stanford. “If there are any C or D grades,” Dad says, “they’re going to hear from me.”

The Howards’ two other children, Gina and Darlene, who were born 7½ months apart and are now both 21, never found themselves under the starter’s gun. In fact, it wasn’t until three years ago that any of the girls took track seriously. Then, while Sergeant Howard was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, Sherri broke state records at 100, 200 and 400 meters. The other girls began to train, sometimes in subzero weather.

When Eugene was transferred to San Bernardino in mid-1978, the four began to compete as a team, turning San Gorgonio High into a major California track power. Now, with the family living in a large Spanish-style home in Granada Hills north of L.A., the girls are five minutes from a practice track where they train three to four hours a day. (Social life for the time being is secondary.) Their coach, Hilton Nicholson, a former Olympian from Trinidad, says, “Of the four, Denean has the greatest potential. And as the youngest, she has more time to develop.”

Tina and Denean hope to follow their sisters to Stanford, which would please Dad. At the moment his biggest problem is an unusual one: “We’re running out of trophy space.” But he adds, “We’ll find room.”

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