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ESPN The Magazine: Hot Pursuit
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Photo Gallery | Flamingo Theater Pulsecard

The lights dim as the emcee announces, "Heeeeeeeere's Leilani!"

The spotlight shines on Leilani Rios, a 21-year-old kinesiology major at Cal State Fullerton, who glides across the stage wearing a cut-to-there slit skirt, skintight T-shirt and white patent-leather boots with five-inch heels. The crowd at the packed Flamingo Theater in Anaheim stares as she swirls and gyrates to the pulsing beat.

"Take it off," someone yells.

And she does. Wrapping one leg around a pole, she swings her body out, yanking off the tee, then stands and shimmies out of the skirt. Dropping to her knees, she arches her back and touches her head to the floor, thigh and stomach muscles rippling. With a flick of her arms, Rios is on her heels in a squat. She snaps away her bra, struts to the edge of the runway and rips off the G-string. Just like that, Rios is naked, and the crowd goes wild.

No one cheers the next day when Rios strips again, this time in the women's locker room at CSF. No one slips her any singles, either. But with a wiggle and a hop, she's out of the jeans she'd worn to class, then is tugging on a pair of baggy shorts and a T-shirt that reads "USA Track." She heads to the weight room, where a dozen students work out. Rios straps in to the thigh blaster. "I'm a little tight today," she tells the instructor. "Worked late."

Yes, Leilani Rios has a job, one that's gotten her way more attention than is due a no-more-than-decent runner at a no-more-than-decent D1 program. Since March, when word leaked that her coach had booted her off the team because she wouldn't give up her night job, Rios' life has become a circus. Thousands have flocked to the Flamingo to feed their curiosity and fill her G-string. Radio shows and chat rooms buzz with opposing caricatures: First Amendment hero or stripping gold digger, the latter view gathering steam when Rios got a lawyer, threatened to sue the school and posed for Playboy.

Of course, few in the peanut gallery knew that Rios had agreed to Playboy's offer partly because she was going broke from cell phone bills, calling all those radio stations that want to ask her the tough questions. You know, like why is she posing for Playboy? Critics also didn't know that she kept her story quiet for a year, or that she told her lawyer not to ask for money. No, Rios' story -- and she's sticking to it -- is that it's never been about cash. "I wanted back on the team," she says, having recently gotten her wish. "That's it."

Well, that and -- just maybe -- a little something else: attention. Because when you grow up without anybody noticing, it matters when someone does, even if it's Playboy.

As coming-out parties go, "Support Leilani Day" had to be a first. Sponsored by L.A. radio station KFI, the three-hour benefit in June was broadcast live from the Flamingo. The club was even more jammed than it had been since March, with men -- surprise! -- but also with conservatively dressed women who chatted with barely-dressed-at-all strippers. Rios, in bikini top and G-string, greeted supporters with a cheek kiss and a "thanks for coming." This is what her life had become, along with those radio interviews and phone calls from Hef. "It has been a little crazy," says Rios, an understatement you'd expect from someone more used to watching 20/20 than being featured on it.

San Bernardino is a scrappy town between L.A. and Palm Springs, smack in the middle of nowhere. Augusto and Cheryl Rios moved there from Compton in 1989, seeking more money and stability. They found neither. Augusto, a truck driver, lost his job 18 months after the move. Cheryl stayed home to care for Leilani and her younger sisters, Michelle and Adriana. The family, Rios says, often relied on government assistance. Their neighborhood, "Little Africa," was a cliché: gangs running the streets, girls getting pregnant -- a place where middle school graduation is an overdone celebration.

When Rios was young, she thought she'd be a dancer in music videos. But with no money in sight for lessons, she kept the thought to herself. Then, during her freshman year at San Gorgonio High, the track coach, Andrea Johnson, pulled Rios aside, guessing that the lithe teenager -- with her five-foot, 95-pound frame -- would make a good distance runner. "She was very fluid when she ran in gym class," says Johnson. "I thought it'd be a good fit."

When Rios said she didn't have the $50 athletic fee the school charged, Johnson paid it, then bought Rios running shoes after she showed up for practice in thick-soled Vans. After a couple of afternoons with the team, Rios was hooked. She loved everything about running: the camaraderie, the exhaustion, the competition. But mostly, she liked what happened inside her head. Rios ran under a spell, connected to the real world only when her feet hit pavement. She became the girl who won the prize, who lived in the castle, who was out of Little Africa. "I didn't worry about anything except breathing and running hard and getting better," Rios says.

She turned into a decent distance runner, and eventually into a good distance runner, excelling at cross country and at 1,500 and 3,000 meters in track. Soon the walls in her bedroom were covered with medals, newspaper clips and the numbers she had worn in each race. Things changed at school, too. "For the first time, I was getting attention for being cool," Rios says. She stopped being the short girl in old clothes. She was a runner.

And running really was her way out. Wanting to study physical therapy, she enrolled at nearby San Bernardino State in 1998. But the school offered only cross country, and after a semester she started looking for one that had track, too. Cal State Fullerton seemed perfect. Located 50 miles from San Bernardino, it had a serious track program, charged reasonable tuition (about $2,000 a year) and was in an area where living expenses weren't too high. CSF was also close to where Rios' new boyfriend, Wayne Hurtado, lived.

The two had met a few months earlier when Hurtado, then 28, showed up at a party in San Bernardino and spotted Rios. "She had this sparkle," says Hurtado, a foreman at a milk plant who is 10 years her senior. "I wanted to scoop her up and take care of her forever." Leilani fell hard for him. "I enrolled at Fullerton, worked out with the team, did really well in tryouts and got engaged," she says. "It was like I had everything."

Everything except a job. Although she was projected to be the Titans' No.2 cross country runner, there was no scholarship money available. Fullerton is a baseball school, having won three national championships, the last in 1995. Women's track gets two scholarships, and they'd already been awarded. Rios and Hurtado moved into a three-bedroom apartment near campus. They rented space to two other people, but Rios needed money for classes and expenses. "I needed something that would let me take a full class load and make morning and afternoon workouts," she says. "There aren't many jobs that flexible."

One of the couple's roommates was Hurtado's half-sister, Denise Person, who played water polo for nearby Cypress College. She also danced at the Flamingo, an all-nude club. Person made good money, sometimes $600 a shift. In the fall of '99, Rios went to try out. "The owner said I had natural moves and looked like I'd had training," she says. "He offered me a job."

Okay, go ahead and ask: What sort of man lets his wife take off her clothes for -- and dance in the laps of -- strange, leering men? The way Hurtado sees it, he's just being supportive. "I'm secure enough to know this wasn't going to be a problem for me," he says. "The place was safe, she liked to dance and she was good at it." Of course, the money might have had something to do with it. Working a couple of nights a week, Rios could earn enough to pay for tuition, books and a chunk of the couple's living expenses. And she wasn't that different from the other dancers, many of whom were also in college. Or so they told her, anyway -- no one checks class schedules in the dressing room. "A lot of girls do this because you work when you want," Rios says. "It's an ideal job."

Particularly if you're used to zoning out when, um, working out. It's a stretch to find parallels between competitive running and professional stripping, but watching Rios run and dance, you can see similarities. She dances, as she runs, in the hazy focus of a trance. In her mind, she isn't baring it all for ogling slobs, she's performing at the MTV awards or in a Janet Jackson video. "I just enjoy myself," she shrugs. "Your life is what you make it. Your thoughts are what you make them."

Throw in all the cheers, not to mention some serious coin, and it's easy to see why Rios believed that everything in her life was finally perfect. "I never thought my coach would care," she says. Rios has obviously not watched many made-for-TV movies.

John Elders has been the track and cross country coach at Fullerton for 13 years. When he first learned of Rios, he was only mildly impressed. But putting her on the team wouldn't cost the school any scholarship money, and Rios, who was getting married, seemed stable. Elders -- who, when he was still talking to the press, described himself as a devout Christian -- thought she'd fit in with the team. He was right. "She was a really sweet girl," says teammate Krissy Parmenter. "Nobody had any idea what she was doing on the side."

Until November 1999, that is, when some Fullerton baseball players visited the Flamingo. The next day, most of CSF's jocks were buzzing about a stripper who was on the track team. The players knew Rios by her face -- and then some -- but not by name. "One of my teammates said she'd heard there was a stripper on the team," says Rios. "I whispered, 'It's me.' I thought she was going to fall over."

Some teammates were supportive -- "It's her business, she can do what she wants," says senior Yahvoh Totimeh -- but the coach certainly wasn't. "I had to do some soul-searching," Elders said. "What's best for Leilani, what's best for us." He decided he didn't want to explain to recruits and their parents that someone on the team was a stripper. He also believed Rios was violating Fullerton's code of conduct for athletes, which states that participants should "give everyone who sees them a positive image of Titan student-athletes." So in February 2000, he told Rios she had to stop stripping or leave the team. Rios told Elders she needed the job. Elders told Rios he knew a lot of student-athletes who worked "regular" outside jobs. Rios asked if there was an NCAA or school rule against what she was doing. "He told me it was his rule," she says.

Rios sat silent for a few moments, then walked out of Elders' office. "I chose work," she says. "Track doesn't pay for school."

Rios was also upset about what she saw as a double standard: The baseball players who spotted her were never officially sanctioned (although Elders said they were warned about not going to strip clubs). "I'm not ashamed of what I do," Rios says. "When I dance, I'm only naked six to 10 minutes a night. Why should my coach care? It's not like it's going to make me slower."

The campus buzzed about the affair for more than a year, but Rios didn't go to the press and didn't turn herself into a cause -- mostly because she didn't think anyone would care. Then in March, a teammate told the story to a reporter from The Daily Titan, who told ESPN, which told the world. Real Sports, Support Leilani Day and 20/20 followed. Rios liked the attention, but mostly she wanted to run again. All the noise changed nothing. Since Rios wasn't on scholarship, the NCAA said it was a school matter. The school backed Elders.

Not surprisingly, none of the usual suspects -- the ACLU or civil-rights groups -- chose to get involved. Strippers' rights aren't high on the feminist priority list. But in May, Joseph Tacopina, a New York attorney specializing in constitutional law, took her on as a pro bono client. Tacopina threatened a federal lawsuit -- on the grounds that the school had violated Rios' constitutionally guaranteed right to self expression -- if Fullerton didn't reinstate Rios to the team and apologize. In June, the school buckled, saying that Rios could rejoin the team if she met NCAA academic requirements.

The reversal caught Rios by surprise. She hadn't run competitively for more than a year, and she'd let her course load slide during her 15-minutes-and-counting of fame. As a result, Rios doesn't have the required number of credits to be eligible to compete in the fall 2001 season. She's asked the school to appeal to the NCAA, but it's unclear if she'll be able to run this fall. Which, to hear her talk, is all Rios ever wanted: "I want to run. I want to graduate from college. I just want to be comfortable. That's all."

On a muggy morning in late July, Rios joined her teammates for an early-morning training run for the first time in 18 months. There were no TV cameras, no photographers, just Leilani and six other Fullerton athletes. "I was very nervous," she says. "They were cool. Nobody said a thing except, 'Hey, what's up? You ready?' "

A day earlier, Rios and Hurtado had met with Elders. "He acted the way he did before all this," Rios says. "He handed me the summer schedule and the fall schedule and welcomed me back." (Elders' sole comment: "It was friendly.") Rios knows her first meet, if it happens, will be a carnival. And when the October Playboy hits the stands on Sept. 3, well, a few people may notice. But she isn't concerned.

That first run back with her teammates, she found the familiar place where reality is how she dreams it. Running through the streets in the silence and light of early morning, she wasn't the Running Stripper or the Stripping Runner. She was just a runner, thinking about breathing and running hard and getting through a grueling practice. And when she finished, she drove home and scarfed down a bowl of pasta. Then, just like the rest of us, Leilani Rios went to work.

This article appears in the September 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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