As the scarlet-clad little man pounded relentlessly into the third mile of the race, the crowd in the intimate confines of Madison Square Garden began a swelling roar. Even the athletes beside the tight oval of the wooden track were yelling. Only Al Lawrence, running with an odd, upright, chest-out stance, seemed rapt in a pool of silence, his face calm, suggesting that his mind was thousands of miles away, as indeed it was.
He won the 3-mile run by 200 yards in 13:26.4, breaking the world indoor record by an incredible 10 seconds. He seemed fresh at the finish as he trotted slowly on around the track, pausing once to embrace his coach, Johnny Morriss of Houston. The tight-packed crowd at the U.S. Indoor Track and Field championships stood and applauded steadily until he left the track. "My legs felt light before the race," he said later. "I knew it would be one of my very best or it would be a fizzer."
Lawrence ran the first quarter of this race in 65 seconds, dangerously fast. "I was trying for 68," he said. "I was a bit amazed when I heard 65. I wanted to hit the half in about 2:18." He ran the first half mile in a whistling-fast 2:12.7 instead. His coach, standing at a curve and yelling the times at Lawrence as he went by, tried to slow him. "I kept thinking he was going to get in trouble," Morriss said. "He kept nodding he was O.K., so finally I waved him on and said 'Let her go.' "
Lawrence, unfortunately for the U.S., is an Australian. He will, if the Olympic committee down under has any sense at all, run for Australia in the Olympics. That's why his mind was miles away as he ran his marvelous race last Saturday. Australia has no Olympic tryout meet; the team will be selected on comparative times, which must be submitted before the selection date, March 25. Lawrence's performance in this race should get him on the team.
His was one of four world record performances in this meet which climaxed the indoor track season. While Lawrence's win only served to point up the U.S.'s deficiency in the longer races, there were enough fine efforts by American athletes to make it evident that now, early in this Olympic year, the U.S. is well on its way to producing its best track and field talent of all time.
John Thomas, the precociously poised 18-year-old sophomore from Boston University, broke his own world indoor record in the high jump by clearing 7 feet 2 inches. He missed once at that height; a more emotional young man might have, in the term the athletes use, psyched out. Thomas seemed to gain confidence from the near miss. He waited only briefly before his second attempt at a height never before cleared in human history, then he made the jump quickly and easily, his long body poised unforgettably for a moment over the cross bar like some giant bird. Then he was down in the pit, the bar firmly in place. The silence which had preceded his jump was shattered by a great, quick burst from the crowd. Thomas did not try to better his record but you get the feeling, watching him, that he is far from his ceiling.
Possibly the most spectacular performance of all, in terms of exceeding a previous world record, was accomplished before a handful of people, most of them contestants, in an armory during the afternoon. Harold Connolly, who has gained 20 pounds with an intensive weight-lifting program during recent months, whirled precisely through the violent, straining pirouette which precedes the weight throw, then lofted the 35-pound ball 71 feet 2½ inches, some five feet farther than the old record. In terms of the margin by which the record was broken, his throw was the equivalent of a remarkable 68-foot shotput. This event, by the way, is not even Connolly's specialty. He is also the world record holder in the hammer throw. On the basis of this performance in the weight throw, which is not an Olympic event, the U.S. should be able to count on a gold medal in the hammer, which is.
Bo Roberson, who would like to play professional football when he finishes his track career, set the other world indoor record by broad-jumping 25 feet 9½ inches, a half inch farther than Jesse Owens jumped in this meet in 1935. Roberson has made prodigious improvement in the broad jump since his graduation from Cornell and football and his consequent concentration on this event.
"I'm disappointed," he said after his record. "My tail was dragging. It must have been. They measured from where my rear hit, not where my heels hit. There's no reason why I shouldn't be over 26 feet right now."
He doubtless will be over 26 feet in the outdoor track season beginning now. He is one of the athletes who make it nearly certain that the U.S. will continue its domination of field events in the 1960 Olympics. Connolly, Thomas, Don Bragg (15 feet 5 inches in the pole vault) and Parry O'Brien (61 feet 8 inches in the shotput) are other indoor champions in a class by themselves. And the tremendous crop of U.S. sprinters, most of whom bypassed the indoor season, is better than ever.
Even in the distances, there is hope. "I'm sure the Americans will eventually dominate the distances," Lawrence said the morning after his race. "There's a great upsurge of interest here in distance running."
No one seems likely to challenge Lawrence, however, in either the 5,000- or 10,000-meter runs. He wants to try this rarely achieved double at Rome, and no one who saw him in the Garden would bet against his winning both events.