What was most impressive about our country? The two visiting Australian sportswriters thought that was easy: "The Golden Gate and Arnie Sowell," they answered quickly.
That was in San Francisco last weekend, after the qualifying heats of the 35th annual National Collegiate track and field championships. After the NCAA finals 24 hours later, the Aussies had second thoughts: "You can forget about the Golden Gate," they conceded, "but leave Arnie Sowell and add the sprinter from Texas and that big bloke with the shot."
These championships exceeded expectations. Nine meet records and one U.S. record were broken as nearly 400 athletes from 87 colleges and universities went after the six qualifying places allotted in each of 18 events for the final U.S. Olympic trials in Los Angeles two weeks later. But none was more impressive than the slender Pitt half-miler with the fluid drive, or the human bullet from Abilene Christian, Bobby Morrow, or "the big bloke with the shot," Ken Bantum of Manhattan.
It was easy to understand the Australian enthusiasm about Sowell. No one runs quite like this feathery 135-pounder with the 9-foot stride who, for almost two years now, has been ghosting his way around the country so swiftly and easily that most experts believe the big question in the 800 meters at Melbourne will be who gets the silver medal for second place.
June 24, 1956
At Berkeley, Sowell started from an outside lane, shot into the lead at the first turn ("Sowell's time for the first 100 meters," solemnly announced a gentleman in the press box, "was 10 seconds flat"), and the race was just about over. Sowell finished 20 yards ahead of Lang Stanley, of San Jose State, and his time, on a track which speed-happy Californians would rather not admit belonged in the family if this could be avoided, was 1:46.7, breaking the meet record and Tom Courtney's American record as well.
Perhaps, in view of Morrow's accomplishments, it would be doing the running path at Berkeley an injustice to call it slow; despite a surface like well-aged concrete and a built-in head wind which howls around the corner off San Francisco Bay, one does not tie American sprint records on slow tracks. And, after just running a 10.4 100 meters into a 5½-mile-an-hour wind, that is exactly what Morrow did. In the 200, his 20.6 clocking was equal to the best ever made around a curve.
But for once the time wasn't really important at all. Instead it was the manner in which this tall, bronzed 20-year-old sophomore from the Rio Grande Valley ran away and hid from what was probably the finest field of dash men ever assembled. In the 100, Morrow beat Dave Sime of Duke, only runner to defeat him over that distance in more than three years, and a young man with three world records of his own up for recognition. He beat Leamon King of California, another 9.3 man, and he beat still a third in Mike Agostini, the little Fresno State flash from Trinidad. And when it was over there was no need for anyone to examine the finish line pictures.
The two dashes, even more than the 1,500 meters and its duel of four-minute milers or the pole vault and its battle of 15-footers (which was vitiated by the absence of Villanova's Don Bragg, who had pulled a leg muscle in practice and chose to delay his try for Olympic qualification until the AAU championship this weekend), dominated local newspaper headlines and conversation; they were all anyone could read or talk about. A coach, pestered for a prediction, finally threw up his hands before trudging off to bed: "You couldn't pay me," he said, "to bet on that 100 race. It will be won right down there at the starting blocks and the guy who gets off late will never catch up."
He was right, and it was Morrow who got off first. He led Sime by a yard at the end of the first strides and Agostini and King by two. At 50 meters, Morrow was long gone. He floated through the tape two yards ahead of Sime and Agostini and twice that distance ahead of King. And after it was over, Agostini admitted a little ruefully that his start was poor and that he could have run a little faster. "Sime can run faster, too," he said, "and so can King. Morrow? I don't know. I don't guess he needs to run any faster."
"I had a great start," said Bobby. "I looked out of the corner of my eye and when I couldn't see anybody, I knew I was all right. I never ran a better race—or ever enjoyed winning one quite so much."
It was Sime's first loss outdoors in two years, and he came back in the 200 determined to get even. This time Morrow was a slight favorite for, despite Sime's blazing times at 220 yards (a world record of 20 seconds flat just the week before), this race, as all Olympic 200-meter events, was to be run on the curve. And the handsome young Texan, an experienced relay man, was famous, wherever trackmen gather, for his ability to run a curve. No one will ever know, now, whether Dave Sime, in a week of frantic practice to master this relatively new and demanding technique, ever quite succeeded. For running in lanes next to each other, Sime and Morrow were both off very fast together, and, still together, they blazed into the turn like twin projectiles bound by some invisible band. Then it happened. Sime, in the abrupt and almost frightening way a sprinter reacts when hit by a tortured and lamed muscle in the middle of a race, staggered and slowed and stopped. And there was Morrow, coming out of the turn all alone. At the finish he was five yards ahead of Dick Blair, the good Kansas 200 man, Bobby Whilden of Texas, and Agostini. And Dave Sime's coach was rushing over to help him off the field.
The muscle injury was high up in the groin over the left leg and no one could say exactly how bad it might be. But it is certain to keep Sime on the sideline at Bakersfield, where Morrow will be running again to sharpen himself for the Olympic trials another week ahead. And, because he cannot qualify there for his best race, the 200 meters, it will limit Dave Sime, who has been the most electrifying performer in an electric season, to running only the 100 at Los Angeles. Whether two weeks of rest is enough to get an injured leg ready to face Morrow and King and all the rest in the climactic battle for one of three Olympic 100-meter berths, only two weeks of waiting will tell.
It was pathetically bad luck, and there was nothing else to match the drama of the dashes. Yet not a soul in the sun-baked crowd of 21,000 dared leave. UCLA and Kansas finished one-two in the team competition, knocking the University of Southern California's mighty Trojans off the throne they had occupied for seven straight years, but in this Olympic atmosphere all eyes were on the individual.
There was Bantum, the mammoth shotputter who became the third man in history to surpass 60 feet. "If I had just half of him," washed Italy's visiting Olympic coach, Georgio Oberweger, as he gazed in awe at Bantum's 6 feet 6 inches, and 234 pounds, "Italy would win an Olympic gold medal."
There was also J. W. Mashburn of Oklahoma A&M, the big blond powerhouse who for four years has ranked among the world's best quarter-milers. Mashburn almost lost his NCAA title to Penn's amazing Johnny Haines, a reformed sprinter who beat the 1955 AAU champion, Charley Jenkins of Villanova, and came within an expanded chest of doing the same to Mashburn. Both runners were caught in 0:46.4 and who said the track was slow?
There was also Phil Conley, the pleasant Cal Tech redhead who, between making honor grades at one of the nation's most demanding schools, serving as student body president and starring in football, basketball and baseball, finds time to become the best collegiate javelin thrower in the country. And there was Hop-step-and-jumper Bill Sharpe of little West Chester (Pa.) Teachers, who may not let the Brazilians and Russians get away with all the medals in that event at Melbourne after all; Greg Bell, Indiana's spring-legged broad jumper who appears capable of showing the kangaroos down under a thing or two about their own specialty; Aubrey Lewis, the Notre Dame halfback who runs so hard the 400-meter hurdles must flinch when they see him coming.
In fact, if there was a dark side for the U.S. at Berkeley, it came in the domination by foreign-born students of all races over 800 meters. This, of course, surprised no one at all.
Villanova's Irish Ron Delany and Oregon's Australian Jim Bailey, the two sub-four-minute men, had their private duel in the 1,500 meters. Both held back off a slow pace for over three laps and then, together, broke for the finish line like two little boys who had just knocked over an apple stand. Delany got there first by a yard while the grocer, as represented by the U.S. contingent, watched from afar and didn't even bother to shake an angry fist.
But an interested spectator from Minnesota named Jim Kelly, who was casing the joint preparatory to taking over as U.S. Olympic coach this fall, didn't feel at all disappointed.
"We won't if we can help it," he grinned, "but I guess that at Melbourne we can afford to give the rest of the world a gold medal or two."
THE ARMED FORCES MAKE THEIR BID
While the collegians were pulling muscles and setting records at Berkeley, 340 miles to the south in the Los Angeles Coliseum the Armed Forces were busy staging their own track and field championship. One world and 12 meet records were demolished as three contestants in each of 17 events qualified for the Olympic tryouts. In addition to the Air Force's Parry O'Brien, who set a new world mark with a 61-foot 4-inch put of the shot, and the Army's Lou Jones whose 400-meter victory in 45.7 equaled the best time ever posted in the U.S., expert opinion agreed that the following athletes stood the best chance of carrying the colors of Uncle Sam's armed forces on to Melbourne: Jim Lea (Air Force), Lon Spurrier (Air Force) and Tom Courtney (Army) in the middle distances; Jack Davis (Navy) and Milt Campbell (Navy) in the high hurdles, Josh Culbreath (Marines) and Bob Rittenburg (Army) in the 400-meter hurdles, Sprinters Thane Baker (Air Force) and Ira Murchison (Army), Broad-jumper John Bennett (Army), and Javelin-thrower Al Cantello (Marines).
Track enthusiasts checked the results and looked forward eagerly to the head-on clashes in this weekend's National AAU championships between Jones, Lea and NCAA Champ J. W. Mashburn in the 400 meters, Courtney and new U.S. Record-holder Arnie Sowell at 800 meters.