This pretty special thing happened in a secluded corner of Southern California last weekend and a lot of track nuts are having trouble keeping cool about it. Consider our Olympic problems as good as solved, they are saying. There is really nothing to worry about. Nothing. What happened was that in the Olympic trials last Saturday and Sunday the United States put together the best women's track and field team it has ever had—more mobile, stronger, deeper and faster than anything before.
It was clear right from the start, when all those young hopefuls began gathering at Cal Poly in Pomona, that something unusual was about to take place. There was a youthful touch of femininity in the air, perhaps a faint breath of hair-spray, a mysterious new something nobody could quite define but which one coach called "a great influx of pretty young things coming into the sport." When it was all over late Sunday night one thing seemed clear: even if they do not win a Sierra Madre lode of medals in Mexico, as everyone expects, these pussycats are ready to call the future theirs. The kids are coming on.
Consider, for example, Maren (repeat Maren) Seidler, a large, cheerful 17-year-old shotputter who wears a sort of runaway Mia Farrow haircut and dangly, ornate silver earrings. She says, "Oh, I know, I know. You say 'shotput' and right away this picture of a giant Tamara Press comes into your mind. I realize you can't be exactly petite in this sport, but you don't have to go the other way either."
Or consider Doris Brown, a dainty little thing who runs the 800 meters with a great deal of élan and who can get away with a costume that includes orange sweat socks. "To give you an idea of how good this team is," she says, "this is the first time the United States has ever even qualified anyone for the 800 meters. We have entered girls in the 800—every country is allowed to enter one girl even if she hasn't met the Olympic standard. But this year all three of our girls ran it under the required two minutes and six seconds."
And there are more, a great many more girls who look great in those warm-up suits, almost as though they were modeling them, for heaven sakes, instead of just keeping their muscles warm. Listen to Track Coach Ed Temple, that portly gentleman in the ventilated baseball cap who works a special sort of magic with girls at Tennessee State. Temple is to women's track what Courr√®ges is to hemlines.
"I think," says Temple, "that we will make a tremendous showing. People are going to find out—they already are finding out—that we can hold our own with anybody."
All this hopeful new thinking crystallized Saturday and Sunday nights in a setting so artfully hidden away from the rest of the world that one might think America was ashamed of its girls. Pomona is out of sight all by itself—it lies somewhere above Los Angeles in air the color of a papaya milkshake. Cal Poly is hard to find; it is one of the new, sort of instant-plastic campuses that are springing up everywhere. And the Olympic trials were a step farther away, in the stadium of Mount San Antonio College, which is the school next door.
The Mount SAC stadium is tucked into a ravine and surrounded by that beige stuff Californians have come to think is what grass should look like. A few spectators wandered in and sat down expectantly. There was a small band in Mexican costume with maracas and a real tuba. Officials wandered about the infield; children ran screaming through the stands. In this casual setting the girls set about making history.
To be sure, certain top performances were expected. Doris Brown and Madeline Manning, for example, have traded wins in their 800-meter event so many times that they almost have permanent possession, and Mamie Rallins, that tiny-waisted thing who does not look strong enough to handle a hurdle, always does. It was typical: the gun went off and here came Mamie—who had politely waited for the other girls to start first, since Mamie is courteous that way—suddenly moving so fast that she seemed to be taking tippy-toes steps between the hurdles and passing everybody easily. When it was over, she ran a few dainty steps beyond the finish, stopped and threw her head back in a sort of madcap gesture, like Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, and looked at the crowd with the faintest suggestion of a shrug. In the 800, Manning and Brown came down the homestretch side by side, like a sister act. The time was 2:03—with Manning first, Brown second, the camera declared—and it was enough to put both of them on the Olympic team, which came as no surprise.
And then the powerhouse look, this vital new something about the team, began to appear. There in third place came another young thing with a perfect name that might have been invented by 20th Century-Fox—Jarvis Scott. Miss Scott has been inching her way toward the top for about a year now; her performance was typical of the shape of teams to come. She came loping home in 2:04.5, well inside the Olympic qualifying mark and a full two seconds faster than she had ever run the event.
"I felt the reaction of the crowd and I tried a bit harder," she said, standing easily in the infield, still nicely coiffed and gesturing with long, slender hands, "but I don't think I used the right technique. Next time I'll do better."
Then it was the 200-meter dash, that crusher in which a girl must forget everything pretty and just plain run, and here came another new 1968 face. Out of nowhere—well, from out of Eugene, Ore.—came Margaret Bailes, who is only 17 and still able to get excited about such things as Disneyland ("I went on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and I just loved Snow White's castle," she said). Margaret came flying through the tape in 23.5, leaving Wyomia Tyus, the 100-meter winner at Tokyo, and Barbara Ferrell, both clocked in 23.7, well behind, though all three were under the Olympic qualifying time of 24 flat.
"Margaret is not sure yet just what she can do," said her coach, Wendy Jerome. The delighted Miss Jerome had just tied the world's record for the standing jump-up-and-down-a-lot. "I don't think she even realizes yet what she has done. It is still coming slowly to her."
"Well," said Margaret, with newfound poise, "a lot of people have been telling me that I should make the Olympics. I finally sort of found myself here."
Meanwhile, off to one side of all that excitement, Shotputter Seidler had changed into her competition earrings ("They're little round silver ones, like little shots, actually," she said) and was beating everybody in sight. She won easily with a toss of 50'1¾" It is not an Olympic qualifying mark—the Olympic standard is 52 feet and the world record is 61 feet—but do not worry about that. Miss Seidler is 17, too, and gaining strength. She also has been in international competition before and knows what it is all about. "When I was in Mexico for the Little Olympics last October," she said, "those big women came out and psyched me something terrible. They were all about 10 years older than me and they came around in those huge trench coats and just sort of looked at me. I sat there and trembled. But not anymore. Now I know what I can do, and I'll beat them yet."
And there still were a couple of kids to come. As the meet moved over to Sunday and the sun sank on the oldtimers, one lanky 16-year-old and a 15-year-old sprite—who stands just a little bit higher than a starting block—made the team.
First, Sharon Callahan, who stands, oh, say, 6'1", won the high jump, clearing 5'7¼", which happens to be the Olympic standard for big girls. She will be joined on the team by Eleanor Montgomery and Estelle Baskerville, who bettered the qualifying mark earlier.
Along came the 400-meter finals. Jarvis Scott beat everybody, with Lois Drinkwater close behind. Then scurrying along with them, only .3 second farther back, came this little critter, Esther Stroy. Clocking a qualifying 54.3, she became a mini-Olympian and one of the fastest 15-year-olds anywhere.
Of course, everyone wasn't 15. Olga Connolly, 12 years after her discus gold medal in Melbourne, was the only qualifier in the discus, and Barbara Friedrich was all alone in the javelin. On Saturday, Martha Watson and Willye White had leaped 21'¾" and 21' fiat, respectively, in the long jump, which should make the kids and the rest of the world sit up and pay attention. And there was a final moment of triumph for Wyomia Tyus. In the 100-meter final she lined up at the start, loosening up and humming to herself. Was she worried about Bailes, that new flash? "I never think about anybody," she said. "I let them think about me."
That's the Olympic stuff, Wyomia. She burst away from the field, led Margaret Bailes all the way and, for an extra little touch, finished with a spectacular belly flop right across the line. "I leaned like I always do, and I couldn't get my balance back," she said. No matter, she can work on that in Mexico.
When it was all over, it was clear that something wonderful was happening to women's track and field in the U.S. Anyone not familiar with the sport had to be surprised by this sudden burst of achievement, but those special fans—nuts, they call themselves—who follow the game closely had seen it coming all along. Like, say, Calvin L. Brown, whose business card identifies him as a "track nut and announcer."
Brown flopped down on a couch in the reception room of the girls' dorm, breathed deeply of the perfumed air and observed: "This year for the first time our youth program is finally paying off. Most of the girls here are still in their teens. They are getting younger now, like they are in swimming. The girls are finding that there can be a certain air of glamour in all this. For one thing, running does great things for the legs. It makes them shapelier."
Whatever the magic was, it was working. Bill Peck, a track statistician, also feels that the trick is in starting them early. "If you get them running early," he said, "the girls can see that they are going to get a lot of attention, and they get to meet a lot of boys that way—not just one or two, like they might otherwise. And the boys get to see them."
Brooks Johnson, former sprinter turned coach, agreed. "At the nationals two years ago 300 entries was an unheard-of record. This year there were 500 girls. Quite frankly, a lot of these new girls are spin-offs from swimming, where the competition is a lot tougher."
"I don't think the track girls go through as much muscular activity as swimmers," said Coach Temple. "Look at the swimmers. Shoot, some of them look like weight lifters. Our girls are definitely more feminine." There it was: track can be beautiful.
"Being a girl and an athlete goes hand in hand," said Mamie Rallins, turning up in hip-hugging gold corduroy bell-bottom pants. High Jumper Estelle Baskerville, in crisp white cotton, summed it all up: "At school," she said, "we will occasionally meet a boy who will say, 'Oh, you're an athlete. Funny, you don't look like an athlete.' Well, what's an athlete supposed to look like?"
Don't worry. Now we know.