Ever since the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics unveiled its new state-suckled track and field team in Europe last spring, armies of sport fans have assumed that the "Russian Juggernaut" is certain to compel a new pattern of athletic power at Melbourne in 1956. But it was impossible to watch the 67th National AAU track and field championships—a sort of pre-Olympics war dance held here last weekend before 20,000 applauding shirt-sleeved spectators—without coming to just the opposite conclusion; without wondering, in fact, just how the Russians will keep the Juggernaut from bogging down when it is finally entered in world competition.
The National AAU championships—traditionally the biggest of the big U.S. meets and the last one of the year—threw the cream of college, club, high school, Army, Navy and Marine Corps stars together outdoors for the first time in 1955. It took three of the University of Colorado's handsome, red-roofed, sandstone dormitories to hold them all, and the effect, even before a race had started, was overpowering. The Russians will have a horrible problem in the Olympics—they face murderous competition from the English, as well as the Hungarians and many of their other satellite states in the distance events where the U.S. is weak, so to end American domination in men's track and field they must seize points where the U.S. is strong.
In Boulder last week, athletes capable of Olympic victory at distances up to the mile and in most of the field events were stacked up four, six, eight and even 10 deep.
Nothing accented this wealth of talent as dramatically as the 880-yard run, the year's final and most astounding expression of American superiority in the half mile—and of the genius of Pitt's smooth-striding young Negro star-of-stars, Arnold Milton Sowell. When he came to Boulder, 20-year-old Arnie Sowell was not in a mood to enjoy the pleasant dry air, or the magnificent backdrop of towering, pine-forested crags behind the green Colorado campus. He had failed by "just going to sleep" in a preliminary heat to qualify for the intercollegiate championships at Los Angeles a week before and had been beaten by Wes Santee in 1:48.5 at Stockton, Calif, before that. And after these discouragements he was up against all his fastest foes.
July 3, 1955
He pulled on running clothes, walked to the empty Colorado Stadium, put on his spikes and ran a 660-yard trial almost as soon as he arrived in town. He was reassured—his time was a fast 1:16, and he felt loose and full of running when he finished. But in his preliminary heat on Friday (which he won in 1:51.8) he became conscious of a new problem: altitude. Boulder (5,350 feet) is more than a mile high. Even sprinters noticed that they recovered slowly after they finished and the effect of thin air, while not as devastating as at Mexico City's Pan-American Games, became painfully apparent in longer races. "Half milers usually stride, move their arms, and breathe almost in unison," said the N.Y. Athletic Club's Bruce Lockerbie. "But here, in the second lap, the sound of breathing got all mixed up. It was queer to hear Arnie panting like that. Personally I can't remember what I did or even who was near me after 600 yards although I ran my fastest race."
Sowell finished in better shape than Fordham's husky Tom Courtney—who badly needed oxygen after his heat—but his legs felt alarmingly dead and unresponsive in the stretch. He went back to his dormitory room, pulled the Venetian blinds and lay in bed with the covers up around his chin, staring nervously into the room. He decided to gamble in the final—to take the lead and keep it "if it killed me," to strike for world record claimant Lon Spurrier's 1:47.5 and take the awful consequences if he ran out of steam. His resolution deepened as the field lined up for the start. Spurrier drew the pole. Sowell ended up far out in lane seven.
He drove like a sprinter at the bang of the gun, angled across the face of the jostling pack, outran Spurrier for the lead, and was in lane one and in front as the field swept into the first turn. That, in effect, was the race. Sowell never faltered, was never challenged in all the two laps as Fordham's Courtney, Billy Tidwell of Emporia, Kansas, State Teachers, the Army's Lang Stanley and Spurrier fought for position in his wake. He sped through the tape with a three-yard lead in 1:47.6 just a tenth of a second off his goal. Courtney (1:48.0) and Tidwell (1:48.1) also beat Mai Whitfield's accepted world record. Stanley (1:48.6) tied it. Spurrier (1:48.7) was only a tenth of a second off. No non-American had ever run as fast as the first three men, and only one (Denmark's Gunnar Neilson) as fast as the fourth.
To indicate that the meet as a whole was conducted on this high note of triumph, however, would be inaccurate in the extreme. There were all sorts of mishaps and disappointments—but many of them had the effect of emphasizing! how well the U.S. might be able to weather similar mishaps later on.
SOME NEW TALENT EMERGES
Jesse Mashburn of Oklahoma A & M, who won the NCAA quarter mile in a steaming 46.6, did not even show up for the AAU meet. But the quarter was duly won by Villanova's Charley Jenkins in faster time than any quarter has been run outside the U.S. all year.
Andy Stanfield, 1952 Olympic 200-meter champion, ran third in the 220 finals. But Pan-American Champ Rod Richard, the winner, was clocked in 21 flat around one turn. Although 13 U.S. runners have already bettered his mark on a straightaway this year, only one European, Vaclav Janecek of Czechoslovakia, has equaled it. There seemed, in fact, no end to the attrition which the big field of athletes was able to absorb without materially damaging the quality of performance. When Northwestern's Jet Jim Golliday, who equaled the world record with a 9.3 hundred-yard dash this year, came to Boulder with a painfully pulled muscle high in his left thigh, up stepped a brand-new phenomenon to thrill the crowd and dominate the hundred—rangy, crop-headed, 19-year-old Bobby Morrow, a freshman from little Abilene (Texas) Christian College.
Morrow came to the big time with a record as startling in its way as Golliday's. Three weeks ago in the NAIA meet at Abilene he ran the hundred (with a 7-mile tail wind) in 9.1 seconds. At Boulder he ran 9.5, but he did so in heart-stopping fashion. He came off his blocks badly in the 100-yard final and both Dean Smith of Texas and Pan-American Champ Richard led him by a half stride at 50 yards.
Nothing can be more disconcerting in the hundred, a race which is often won or lost almost at the instant it begins. But Morrow's smooth, hard driving stride simply seemed to lengthen. He was even at 80 yards and rolling like old 97 on White Oak Mountain when he hit the tape—one foot in front.
The high hurdles also provided a share of alarms and sensations. Illinois' Willard Thompson, a 13.7 performer, pulled a muscle and fell with an agonizing thud in a preliminary heat and defending Champion Jack Davis took two false starts in the final.
When calm descended, Milt Campbell, the University of Indiana's giant (203 pounds) halfback, decathlon star and hurdler, won the race in 13.9. He was not excited by his feat; when he was reminded that nobody outside the U.S. has come close to running that fast he cried: "Man, if you haven't got the 13.9 habit in this league, you're nobody, just nobody. Six, seven, maybe eight fellows could do that and there's all these kids coming up."
In the AAU meet, however, a few 17-and 18-year-old kids proved they were already "up." Nobody was able to match Compton, California's high school high jumping sensation, Charley Dumas, for sheer crowd appeal. Though only 18 years old, Charley jumped with USC's national champion (6 feet 11½ inches) Ernie Shelton.
Both Shelton and Dumas drifted up and over with leafy lightness at 6 feet 6 inches. They did so at 6 feet 8 inches. Then, at 6 feet 9 inches Charley knocked the bar down twice. When he made it on his last try and rose with a grin of vibrant joy, he was washed in cascades of applause. Refreshed, he jumped 6 feet 10 inches with ease. Shelton tried for 6 feet 11 inches. Charley breezily announced that for himself he preferred to try for a world record at seven feet. He missed. But Shelton, who had the right to feel slightly startled, had missed too at 6 feet 11 inches and Charley got a tie.
Moments of jollity did not stop with the high jump. UCLA's husky shot putter, Don Vick, absently lobbed his cannon ball into the steeplechase water jump and had to wade in and feel around for it while the stands cheered him raucously. Then too, there was the mile run starring Wes Santee—which, in its original manifestations looked like any other mile run, but which changed character as it went along. Sixteen entrants lined up (with Santee in the second row) for a standing start, were sent off, and began colliding with each other like neutrons in an atom smasher. As the runners went into the turn the starter signaled a halt with pistol shots, stopped them—some almost in the back stretch—called them back, gave them a five-minute rest and started them again.
Santee, certain that the altitude would prevent a four-minute attempt and apparently just as certain that the crowd might resent a hard-run but dull 4:05 or 4:06, started slowly.
He was 13th on-second lap, ninth on the third and fifth—having pulled even with New York's Fred Dwyer—at the bell. Then on the first turn of the last lap he took off after the weary straggle of runners ahead of him. He sprinted all the way down the back stretch. He sprinted the turn. He came whomping up the homestretch with his ears still laid back and legs still pumping and hit the tape, amid delighted applause, in 4:11.5—having whistled through the last quarter in 54.4 seconds. During the afternoon he also patted the head of a child near the track, signed autographs, and left the stadium on a general note of warmth.
It remained for Parson Bob Richards, the unchallenged pole-vaulting champion of the world, however, to accomplish two separate and distinct feats of communication with the crowd. In the midst of the day's activities—while two 14 feet 6 inch vaulters were getting into a tie for second, and four 14-foot vaulters were getting into a tie for fourth, Richards left the pit and strolled out on the infield near the official's stand. There he picked up a microphone and made a dandy little speech on behalf of the Olympic Games fund. "When they pass these contribution boxes around why let's everybody put in $10," said he. (Loud laughter.) "I told you," grated the voice of the next announcer, "that he was a preacher." (More laughter.) Then Bob strolled back to the runway and vaulted 15 feet for the 77th time.