Before every race Chi Cheng (pronounced Chee Chun) talks to herself. In red shorts (a lucky color in China) and a white shirt inscribed with Chinese characters that spell the name of her home town, Hsin-chu, she paces up and down, staring fiercely without seeing anyone, snapping her fingers. "Are you ready?" she asks. "Yes, I'm ready," she replies. "You are no good," she says. "Yes, I'm good," she counters. "Ah, then go and suffer," she says.
In the stands her coach, Vince Reel, is watching. "Here we go," he says. "She's mad now." Chi has to be angry to win and, since she cannot bear to lose, working herself up into a rage comes easy. For the past two years she has got angry with such regularity that she has lost only two of 121 races and has become the fastest, most versatile woman in track and field. She holds 11 Asian, six American and four world records.
When Chi came from Taiwan to live in Los Angeles seven years ago she was primarily a hurdler and long jumper. Last Saturday she showed that she was, preeminently, a sprinter. Running for the Los Angeles Track Club at the Portland (Ore.) Rose Festival meet, she set world records in the 100-yard dash (10 flat) and in the 220 (22.7). The previous mark in the 100, shared by Chi, Olympic champion Wyomia Tyus and Marlene Mathews of Australia, was 10.3; the former record in the 220 was 22.9, by Margaret Burvill of Australia. Chi's extraordinary feats at Portland compare not unfavorably with Bob Beamon's astounding long jump at Mexico City, particularly since she performed them on a clay and cinder track. But at first Chi wasn't excited. "I didn't feel like I did it," she said. "I felt like someone else ran, not me. But when I came home and heard it on the radio, I said, 'I think I really did it.' "
Chi also won the 100-meter hurdles at the Rose Festival, clocking a personal best of 13.2 after an atrocious start (the world record is 12.9). Each weekend she customarily competes in three or four events, and time and again she has beaten the top U.S. women at their specialties—Mamie Rallins in the hurdles, Willye White in the long jump, Pat Winslow Bank in the pentathlon, Barbara Ferrell in the sprints and, lately, Kathy Hammond in the quarter.
June 21, 1970
Chi doesn't believe in psyching an opponent; she considers it immoral. When others try to psych her, she only gets angrier. Last year, at the AAU outdoor nationals, Willye White, meaning to do Mamie Rallins a favor, asked Chi before the 100-meter hurdles, "Why do you want to run? You might pull a muscle." Infuriated, Chi beat Mamie by three yards.
Again last winter, at the indoor nationals, she got even with Barbara Ferrell. Earlier, at the Los Angeles Times meet, Barbara had beaten Chi in a disputed finish and had gone on record as saying that Chi could only beat her when she was sick. "I was so mad," says Chi, "I traveled all the way to New York to beat her, and I hadn't even planned to compete there." Indeed, she was so fired up she not only beat Barbara in the 60-yard dash, she also won the long jump, with a personal best of 21'¾", and the 50-yard hurdles. "Chi looks like a delicate flower," says Vince Reel, "but she's as hard as a fortune cookie."
Chi likes to pour it on right from the start, but should she get off slowly she resumes her pep talk in mid-race. In a meet at Berkeley last month she started poorly in a 100-meter-hurdle race in which Mamie Rallins was also entered. "I was kind of dreaming," Chi recalls. "After 50 meters, I wasn't much ahead of Mamie, and I say to myself, 'Oh boy, you can't let her stay that close to you. You got to go,' and oh, I can really feel that I'm going and I feel so good. Coach calls it turning on the motor."
"At 26," says Reel, "she's still like a 10-year-old kid who comes to the track for the first time. She still has that exuberance that with others wears off over the years. She loves to train and to race, and she does everything a coach tells her to do."
But it takes some telling to get her to run the quarter mile. She and Reel have invented a game which they play each time he enters her in the 440. It is called: Making Chi Mad for the 440. They first played the game one day a few months ago, when Chi was training at Cal Poly in Pomona, Calif., as she does for two hours every afternoon. She ran through her 80-and 150-yard shakeups. She practiced her hurdle technique, hitting each hurdle with the back of her right leg to force a quicker landing. She did her calisthenics and 60 push-ups. Not women's push-ups, men's push-ups. "When I can do 60," says Chi, "I know I'm in shape."
"I've been thinking," said Reel, "you could run the quarter." "Oh, no," cried Chi, "that is too far. I would have to change training." "We don't have to change it," said Reel. "The 440 is good for the 220." The next weekend, Chi ran the 440 against Kathy Hammond and won. "I was so mad at Coach," she says.
Before the California Relays, and again before the Compton Invitational last month, Chi and Reel went through their routine. "Please, Coach, don't make me run," she begged. "I don't know," he said. "You promised that I would never have to run it again," she said. "Just one more time," he said. "You want to see me suffer," she cried. "You have no heart. You are mean." And then, of course, she was angry and went out "to show him."
In the 440 at Compton, Chi slowed at the end but still finished, on the soft, worn-out L.A. Coliseum track, in 52.6, .2 above the world record and .7 under Charlette Cooke's American record.
"Why did you slow down?" a friend asked her. "I didn't slow down," she said. "I gave it all I had. I always run all out." Then she looked at the beaming Reel. "I would have been disappointed if he hadn't made me run," she said. "I always want to run for him, because he gives me so much more than I give him." If Chi sounded like Jane Eyre trying to please Mr. Rochester, it was no coincidence. Charlotte Bronte's novel is her favorite book in English.
Chi Cheng is thoroughly Chinese. When asked whether she will become an American citizen, she replies, "My skin is Chinese. My eyes are Chinese. If I became an American I would feel funny. I am just an ordinary Chinese." "Ordinary?" says Henry Reid, a phys ed student at Cal Poly. "She's abnormal." When his physiology class was assigned to conduct a test on an athlete, he chose his schoolmate, Chi. "Everything turned up abnormal," says Reid. "She can focus on objects only three inches away, while normally the focal length of vision is 10 inches. This makes her one in 500,000. Most people have one dominant eye, but she can see equally well with the left and the right. Only one in a million has both these traits. She reacted to sound and touch stimuli in .1 second (.2 is normal), and we were having a conversation with her at the same time."
But who wants to be special? Not Chi, although she admits to a belief in lucky numbers (1 and 7) and a fear of evil spirits that hide out in closets. When she was a teen-ager running to the well with two water buckets dangling from a yoke, she could hear the spirits crying in the tall bamboo. "Eek, eek," they called.
Chi grew up on the outskirts of Hsin-chu, a city of 564,000 near Taipei. She was the third of seven children ("The least important one," she says. "The oldest and the youngest are the ones who get spoiled.") She is Taiwanese-Chinese, her ancestors being among the Chinese settlers who came to the island in the 17th century. In 1944, when Chi was born, Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese, and she was given a Japanese name, Homiko, as was required. When the Japanese left, her father had her first name changed to Cheng (in China the family name precedes the given name).
Chi started running when she entered high school, and before every track meet (there were three a year) her mother, a devout Buddhist, would take her to the temple. "Guide my daughter to victory," she would pray, "and we will return to worship you again and contribute a neon light." Neon tubes are a popular offering in Taiwan. Chi enjoyed going to the temple for quite a different reason. She liked to dig into the fortunes that were bunched in a container, as they are in every Chinese temple. And like all Chinese, Chi would keep picking out fortunes until she found one she liked. Even today she considers it a lucky omen if, when turning on the car radio on the way to a track meet, she hears a favorite song. However, if she doesn't hear one right away she switches stations until she does.
Chi is unusually tall for a Chinese (she is 5'7½"). "When I go back to visit," she says, "everybody follows me around. People recognize me because I'm so tall, and I'm embarrassed to bargain in the shops." For this reason she never had any boy friends. "The boys in my class were all much shorter than I," she says, "and a little afraid of me." So Chi came to look up to older men.
The first was her father, Chi Chingchu, a grocer. When Chi and her brothers and sisters came home from school with marks that were less than perfect, he would strike their hands with a ruler. "But he is also a kind man," she says. "He always said that when we cried he cried inside." Chi is still eager to please him. At Cal Poly, where she is a phys ed major, she gets A's.
The second father figure in her life is Vince Reel, the 56-year-old track coach at nearby Claremont-Mudd College. Reel first saw Chi 10 years ago at the Rome Olympics (he coached the Indian team on assignment from the State Department), where she was last in her hurdle heat. In 1962 Reel was sent to Taiwan to prepare its national team for the Asian Games. It was then that Reel and Chi got acquainted. Like all of her teammates, she strove to please the American coach. "She was just running away from everybody," says Reel. "She could win anything without training. We agreed that she should come to the U.S. to train for the Tokyo Olympics, and her government granted permission and gave her money for her education. She came to Los Angeles and found out that she couldn't win everything. She had to work."
When Chi arrived in February 1963, she couldn't speak English, either. "I had English in high school," she says, "but all I could remember was 'twinkle, twinkle, little star' and 'what is the matter with you, you foolish lamb?' That didn't get me very far." She enrolled at a language school and in no time at all was able to say, "Where are the chickens and the cows?"
Although she trained sedulously for the 1964 Olympics, she failed to qualify for the semifinals in the hurdles and was 17th in the pentathlon. But in the pentathlon hurdles she was able to keep abreast of Russia's renowned Galina Bystrova for six hurdles, Galina pulling away to win in 10.7. "I knew then," says Chi, "that one day I must run 10.7, too." She has since run the 80-meter hurdles in 10.4, and holds indoor world records in the 50-meter (6.9) and 50-yard hurdles (6.5).
Despite several setbacks on account of injuries, Chi improved steadily. Early in 1967, however, she had a knee operation, and in the summer of 1968 pulled muscles in both legs. Nonetheless, in Mexico City she got to the finals in the 100-meter dash, placing seventh, and won a bronze medal in the hurdles. She keeps it hidden in a closet with her other trophies, possibly as an offering to the spirits.
Someday Chi would like to return to Taiwan, be married in a Chinese ceremony and become a good cook, but until then she is happy to ignore her other aptitudes for the sake of track. "When I was young," she says, "I used to think I had all talents. I thought I could sing, paint, write compositions and be good at athletics, because that's what I was told. When I got older I realized you don't deserve a talent unless you work at it. That is what I decided to do in athletics. Coach says, 'You have to tell yourself: I'm the greatest.' Of course, I don't say it out loud."