Dr. Delano Meriwether spent last Friday, as usual, studying leukemia cells in mice at the Baltimore Cancer Research Center. Then, early in the evening, he and his wife Myrtle drove down to College Park for the first big track meet of the U.S. indoor season. Dr. Meriwether is a track fan who, this past summer, scheduled his Sunday afternoons around the televised coverage of the U.S. team's European meets. He remembers one Sunday in particular when he was stretched out on his bed viewing the 100-meter dash. After the race was over and the times were announced, he called out to Myrtle, "Hey, I can beat those guys." Myrtle didn't reply.
But on Friday evening, as Dr. Meriwether strolled onto the running track in Cole Fieldhouse at the University of Maryland, wearing gold swimming trunks, a white hospital shirt and a pair of striped suspenders, she was all eyes. As Myrtle Meriwether had learned, her husband may have been right.
Despite his unorthodox attire, no one else paid him much attention. "I was worried that maybe I was out of place," Dr. Meriwether said later, "but the carnival atmosphere of the scene relaxed me. The crowd was warm and enjoying itself and the athletes were relaxed and talking to one another."
Dr. Meriwether reported for his qualifying heat in the 60-yard dash. "I felt I'd run well," he said. "My swimming trunks give me a sense of speed and my legs felt ready under them." Also waiting for the gun were Ben Vaughn, who won the 220 at the AAUs last summer, and Donald Quarrie, the Commonwealth Games 100-and 200-meter champion. Lee Evans, who later set a world record in the 500, looked over the field and Meriwether's costume caught his eye. "Man, who is that guy?" Evans recalled wondering. "I figured he had to be a freshman from Maryland State or something. I watched his start and it was terrible. He came off the blocks too high and his arms were swinging instead of pumping. But then he stretched out and, whoosh! I knew that with a good start this guy could have broken the world record."
January 18, 1971
Dr. Meriwether came on to finish second in the heat, qualifying for the finals, in which he drew the sixth lane. Charlie Greene, who shares the world record over both 100 yards and 100 meters, was beaten in his qualifying heat, so the race was expected to be between Mel Pender, who had tied the world indoor record at 5.9 in his heat, and Ivory Crockett, the AAU champion in the 100, who were running in the second and third lanes. "I felt I had an advantage," Dr. Meriwether said. "They wouldn't see me from their lanes and I knew they weren't concerned about me. They felt it was their own race. Here were two guys I'd seen on TV just a few months ago and I felt I could take them."
This time Dr. Meriwether's start was even poorer than in his heat, but he drew even with the leaders just past the midway point. "I put a good lean into the tape and I saw the blur of Pender," he said. "I knew I had him." When the winner of the 60-yard dash was announced, Myrtle jumped up and down in her seat.
In less than a year Dr. Delano Meriwether had transformed himself from a mild-mannered spectator into a world-class sprinter. "I've never heard of anything like it," said Lee Evans, who has heard and seen a lot.
Dr. Meriwether began running last winter at the age of 27. He had always been interested in athletics, but had never had the chance to participate. In high school, at Charleston, S.C., there was no track team and he was too light for football. "There wasn't much use for a guy who was six feet tall and weighed 135 pounds," he said, "particularly on a team that had won two city championships. I liked basketball but the football players were outstanding in basketball." So he played the saxophone in the school band. After school he had a job at a veterinary hospital, and the health and care of animals soon became his primary interest. He studied dog parasites and his exhibits won him two trips to the National Science Fair. He was a premed student at Michigan State, breezing through in three years, but his course load was so demanding that the only sport he found time for was intramural volleyball. In 1963 he became the first black to be admitted to the Duke University Medical School.
At Duke he chose the study of blood diseases as his specialty, and this decision ultimately resulted in his taking up track. Last year, his first at the research center, Dr. Meriwether cared for young leukemia patients. "Every patient is a tragedy," he said. "I knew everyone in the ward and I became personally involved with them. It was a particularly difficult year. I took up running as a diversion." In February, Dr. Meriwether went to an armory in Baltimore to watch a local meet, which took place on a track surrounding a basketball floor. He recognized Nick Lee, an excellent hurdler he had seen on television. Dr. Meriwether introduced himself after the meet and Lee invited the stranger to run with him. "I guess he felt that if I was crazy enough to come out and watch him, then I was crazy enough to run," Dr. Meriwether explains.
Lee offered him a pair of track shoes and encouragement, and Dr. Meriwether began to train. On Saturdays he walked the three blocks from his apartment building to the track at Johns Hopkins University. If a lacrosse game was scheduled, he went crosstown to Morgan State. Much of his early training, however, took place on the seven flights of stairs leading up to his apartment. Coming home from work, he took them four steps at a time. Sometimes he climbed them backwards, and the sight of a man dressed in a knee-length doctor's coat running upstairs in reverse tended to unnerve his neighbors. "It seemed like I'd always pass women returning home with their groceries," he recalled.
Dr. Meriwether didn't realize how fast he was until he entered local meets last summer. He had no way of knowing, because he discontinued using a stopwatch after he and a friend ran a 440 against the clock. "I thought we were really burning," Dr. Meriwether explained. "We were both puffing and putting everything into it and I thought that I must be setting an unofficial record. Then I looked at the watch. The time had to be the slowest 440 in history."
From then on he trained by instinct—and he has never had a coach. Dressed in a baggy pair of trunks held up by suspenders, he worked out until his legs felt strong and fast. Representing the Baltimore Olympic Club, he ran a 9.6 hundred in the South Atlantic AAU meet, a 9.5 in the Baltimore Municipal Games and a 9.4 at the All-Eastern. A short article was written about him in The New York Times and he was a FACES IN THE CROWD selection (SI, Aug. 17).
"I looked around for meets in the fall and discovered there weren't any," he said, "so I had to convince meet officials that I could run indoors this winter." To this end, he sent his clippings to the director of every meet on the indoor schedule.
Last Monday he received the list of 60-yard-dash entries for the National Invitational meet in College Park. "I expected to see a lot of local names." he said, "but instead I saw Greene, Pender. Crockett—about nine world-class sprinters in all. I was startled." On Wednesday he definitely decided to run and on Friday he beat them all in 6.0, wearing his hospital shirt because it had been mentioned in the Times story and the suspenders because "women who go to track meets might be entertained by a fashion show."
After his victory Dr. Meriwether was approached by Charlie Greene . "Meriwether," he said speculatively. "I'll remember that name next time and I'll be seeing you later."