Last August, upon his return from dual meets in Paris, Stuttgart and Leningrad, Jeromee Liebenberg took his Ford van, his fiancée Sue, his Indian headbands and beads and headed for California. The van was decorated with orange scrollwork and little blue flowers, and Liebenberg, who spells his first name with a double "e" but rather perversely pronounces it "Jerome," wore his orange hair to his shoulders. Off he drove to Big Sur, and his friends thought they might have seen the last of him. His detractors thought he belonged in a commune anyway. Liebenberg thought he needed a rest, which he got.
The Leningrad meet, in which he came in sixth and last in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in a dismally slow 9:17.6, had concluded a long season in which Liebenberg had run 11 steeplechases plus innumerable miles, three-miles and six-miles. Often doubling or tripling, he had helped his school, Western Michigan, win all its dual meets and yet another—the 12th in 13 years—Mid-American Conference title. At the NCAA championships he had placed second in the steeplechase, and in the AAUs he had finished fourth in 8:44.4, a personal best.
Despite Liebenberg's prowess, his hair, his headbands and the fact that he didn't tuck in his running shirt prevented him from being taken seriously. Track & Field News reported that he looked "less like a distance runner and more like a refugee from Tobacco Road."
Liebenberg had his hair cut when he returned to school last fall, but not, he insists, because his coach, Jack Shaw, asked him to. "I found it easier to run with shorter hair," he says. He still wore his mustache and his granny glasses, and he doned his floor-length burlap robe for meals at the campus cafeteria, but he was rounding into a more purposeful person. A senior with a major in phys ed, he took over a student-teaching program and, when he faced his students for the first time, he says he suddenly felt "grown-up." He also was determined to make up for Leningrad, and as soon as the snow melted in Kalamazoo he started his 125-miles-a-week training program. He set his goals high: to win at the conference meets, to win at the NCAAs, to qualify for the Pan-American Games team at the AAUs, and to set a world record and win an Olympic gold medal. Running, he decided, was to be his main preoccupation for the next two years, and when his fiancée didn't agree, he broke the engagement.
June 6, 1971
His first reward came at the Dogwood Relays in Knoxville in April, when he ran the steeplechase in 8:32.2, only 1.6 seconds slower than George Young's national record and the second-best time ever recorded by an American.
The steeplechase has been called the toughest of the distance races, since it demands both endurance and technique. Liebenberg has made it his specialty because he finds flat races boring. He admits, though, that one has to be a masochist to enjoy going over five three-foot barriers on each of seven laps including, most arduous of all, the water hazard, which is 2½ feet deep at its deepest point.
The steeplechase is an offshoot of the horse racing event of the same name. As Roberto Quercetani relates in his A World History of Track and Field Athletics, one day in the fall of 1850 several members of Oxford's Exeter College were discussing an obstacle race they had just completed on horseback. One of them, Halifax Wyatt, is said to have remarked, "I would much prefer to go over that two-mile course on foot rather than mount that camel again." His friends took him up on it, and the race was run later that year over a rough course that included 24 jumps.
The event has had its ups and downs. Officially instituted as a two-mile race in 1889, it has been dropped and resumed four times. It made its Olympic debut in 1900 in Paris with two races of 2,500 and 4,000 meters each. The distance was permanently set at 3,000 meters in 1932, but at the Los Angeles Games that year the judges lost count of the laps and the competitors wound up running 3,460 meters. It was not until the IAAF congress of 1954 that definitive rules were established for the race, which necessitated the nullification of all previous world records.
Although Liebenberg has never got more than his feet wet at the water jump, others have been less fortunate. Paavo Nurmi took the plunge in a heat at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. A Frenchman, Lucien Duquesne, stopped and graciously helped him to his feet. The grateful Nurmi towed Duquesne along for the rest of the race and asked him to go ahead and finish first; Duquesne humbly chose second place. Last summer, in the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Australia's Kerry O'Brien, who had previously set the world record of 8:22.0, caught his foot on top of the beam and toppled into the water. Alas, no gallant Frenchman was around.
Now 22, Liebenberg was born in Chicago and grew up in Milwaukee, where he was state high-school cross-country champion. He enrolled at Western Michigan because of its fine track program. "I also knew," he says, "that Playboy rated it the third-best party school in the nation."
Although he fancied the steeplechase, Liebenberg found the event exasperating. "You're slowing over the hurdles, then picking it up again," he says. "You lose a lot of energy because of the changes in speed. So your slowdowns have to become so minute that they affect you as little as possible. You strive for fluidity. I used to try to jump into the pit as far as possible and I was hurting my ankle. Coach Shaw taught me not to bend over so much, to shorten my step into the pit and to stand up coming out of it."
"I told him to look down on the barrier to make sure that his foot is on it, but then to look out," says Shaw, adding that the water jump was about the only phase of steeplechasing in which he could help him. An independent cuss, Liebenberg works out his own training schedules, keeps his own running log and informs Shaw before each practice session what he wants to run.
Last month, at the Mid-American Conference meet in Athens, Ohio, Liebenberg was again the high point man (28) for victorious Western Michigan. In each of his three races, the steeplechase, the mile and the three-mile, he was competing against his archrival, Sid Sink of Bowling Green, the NCAA steeplechase champion. Liebenberg won the steeplechase in 8:34.7, excellent time for a gravel track and concrete water pit. He also won the mile in 4:06.9, a personal best, and came in second to Sink in the three-mile in 13:39.9, which improved his best time by 8.1 seconds.
For a world-class runner, Liebenberg has curious habits. He drinks a lot of beer and eats strange meals. For example, on the bus to a meet he may munch on anchovies, sardines, salami and pretzels. "He does things nobody else does," says a friend, Half-Miler Dave Mastervich. "Like when he started knitting in class."
"I always wanted to know how to knit," says Liebenberg, "because we go on these long bus trips and I thought if I could knit I could do something constructive. So I knitted this thing—six by six inches. It was green."
His friends recall the time at the Washington, D.C. airport when Liebenberg was sitting next to a man smoking a cigar. "Jeromee took out his can of air freshener and sprayed all over the man," recalls Decathloner Steve Smith. "When the man got mad and started calling us feminine types for our long hair, Jeromee took out his knitting."
Liebenberg also impresses his friends with actions that seem "straight" for one who went to Woodstock. For instance, he has been making money on the stock market and recently bought a 1971 Camaro. A few weeks ago he started dating Mary Ellen Jenkins, a demure brunette who patiently watches his races from the top row of the stands. "I don't like a woman who talks all the time," says Liebenberg, who doesn't talk much himself.
However, he does have something to say about the youth of today. "Most of them are very idealistic," he says. "They think they can change things. I've been through all this already, and I don't think we can change anything. All these years that I've been in college, we've been having all these demonstrations all over the country, and the war is still going on. Two years ago some students at Western Michigan took over the student union, because it was always being closed at 11 p.m. and they wanted to stay longer. They occupied it for one night. The student union still closes at 11 p.m. We couldn't even change that. It all seems so useless. I don't have the time anymore."