At last the girls are ours

The U.S. is getting possessive about its women athletes, and rightly: they shape up as a real Olympic threat
August 16, 1964

Ed Temple is the coach of the U.S. women's Olympic track and field team. He is also a man with a mission, and it was therefore with a certain amount of emotion that he heard one little word last month while listening to a TV playback of the Russian-American track meet. The word was "our," and to Temple it meant that girls in short shorts and spikes were no longer a subject to be avoided in gracious conversation. "I've heard those television people before," said Temple. "It was always 'the girls.' But when they started beating the Russians in Los Angeles, you know what that announcer called them? He called them 'our girls.' "

Last week, at Randalls Island in New York, 168 of our girls, younger and far friskier than ever (and nearly alone in almost empty Downing Stadium), ran, jumped and tossed and (face it) sweated their way onto the U.S. Olympic track and field team. Ed Temple beamed like a man who finally had the makings of a team that, with luck, could make good—and quite cheerful—drawing room chatter next October.

Missing from the trials was Wilma Rudolph, winner of three gold medals in Rome. Her absence should have made any coach burst into sobs, but Temple, who once said it would take three girls to fill Wilma's shoes, has the three—and more. One, in fact—Edith McGuire—could move right into Wilma's place on the Olympic podium in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and 400-meter relay. Temple would rather roll naked in a bed of nettles than compare the two girls. Still, the comparison is apt. Edith McGuire has the same supple, long legs, the same loose gait and the same ability to relax right up until the starter says, "Ladies, take your marks." One judge, while passing Miss McGuire on the way to the starting line of the 100-meter dash, whirled, scratched his head and said: "My God, her eyes were closed."

But when the time to race comes, Miss McGuire is wide awake and ready, and she can put more grace and life into a 100- or 200-meter dash than any other woman in the world today. She proved this in the trials by winning both events in the excellent times of 11.3 and 23.4. Nor were such accomplishments cake-walks. Just a hot breath behind Edith in the 100-meter came Marilyn White, a shorter version of pure speed, and Wyomia Tyus, barely 19 and a teammate of Edith's at Tennessee State ("My girl for '68," Temple calls her). In the 200-meter dash it was Vivian Brown, another Tigerbelle, who goes to the starting blocks as tense as Miss McGuire is relaxed, who made the pace telling. "No one's showed the pure speed of Wilma," said Temple, "but then Wilma didn't show the speed of Wilma until she did it in the Olympics. Any one of these girls might just run away from the field at Tokyo."

One of the observers who was impressed by the American girls in the Russian meet was the Russian coach himself, Gabriel Korobkov, who went so far as to say, "I think your women may win more gold medals than the men." Korobkov is a charmer, but he is wrong. The American men certainly will win more gold medals than the women. But when he refers to the girls as "fantastic," the word has a ring of at least partial truth. At that, he did not get to see a saucy little 17-year-old blonde from Kansas named Janell Smith run the 400 meters. When he does, he is in for another severe shock. Like the American men, Miss Smith gives every indication that the U.S. is about to win some medals in the longer races.

Held out of the Russian meet by her coach (and father) so she would be primed for the trials, Janell Smith came to town with less than a year's experience in this difficult event—and the first half of that was undistinguished. "She had a real block about a fast race," said Meade Smith, "something like the four-minute mile was before Roger Bannister came along to break it." Papa Smith fixed that this winter when he entered Janell in a 400-meter race against two boys, each of whom was to run 200 meters. At the finish her time was an impressive 55.6, and since then neither time nor women have bothered her much. Neither have her mistakes, which are frequent but never fatal. In the semifinals last weekend she nailed her starting blocks into the track pointing to the outside instead of into the turn. She nearly made a complete circle trying to straighten herself out at the start but still managed to finish with a time of 54.6, just 1.2 seconds off the world record. In the finals Miss Smith popped out of the blocks well before the starter had indicated that such action was permissible and had to reassemble herself for another start. That effort, plus a headwind in the backstretch, eliminated any possibility of a record, but she won by five yards anyway.

Korobkov did see Willye White and Eleanor Montgomery, two who specialize in jumping farther and higher than any other American girls. He will see plenty more of them at Tokyo. Miss White, who broad-jumped 21 feet 4 inches, would have done at least a foot and a half better had she not fallen backwards on one remarkable try. Miss Montgomery cleared the high jump at 5 feet 8, not earthshaking by any means and a good four inches from a gold medal at Tokyo. But when the lithe high jumper was discovered in Cleveland only last year she was underweight and lacked stamina. Her coach, Maralyn West, has been force-feeding her vitamins and working on her technique, and she now awaits higher and better leaps.

Jumping and running events have interested American girls for years. The javelin, however, had been a puzzlement—that is until RaNae Bair, a tall (5 feet 11), slender, sandy blonde from San Diego, took it up two years ago. When done correctly, the javelin is one of the prettiest of all sporting events, but as practiced by the early Miss Bair it had the esthetic quality of a partially blocked punt. Her best tosses went 75 feet. But RaNae Bair's goal was Tokyo in 1964, and she set about getting there. Her program was to run every morning along the beaches of San Diego, listen carefully to anyone who would help her (almost nobody did) and study textbooks until she had mastered the intricate cross-over steps and swivel hip motion that gives the sport its winning grace. Exactly one month after her first throw Miss Bair entered her first big meet, and got off a heave of 152.7 feet, just 17 feet less than the best any American girl had done before. Miss Bair has improved her performance in every major meet since then. The throw has become loftier, the arch more geometrically perfect and the approach more graceful. This year at the Nationals at Hanford, Calif., Miss Bair, who competes best in good company, threw the javelin 173 feet to set an American record and convince herself that Tokyo was sure and a medal possible. "I always had it in the back of my mind that I could make it," she said, "but that was the day I knew it."

Last week RaNae Bair (the name comes from the French Renee, and is pronounced similarly) balanced the slender javelin over her right shoulder, raised it and lowered it three times as if in challenge to some enraged beast, started her long, loping stride toward the takeoff area, crossed over for her two approach steps and without so much as a grunt added three more feet to her American record (176). "That, sir," said one Olympic official, "is pure beauty." That, sir, is one of our girls.