With only two events to go in last week's AAU national decathlon championship, a group of officials gathered in solemn conclave before a big scoreboard in the infield. The figures showed that Russ Hodge, the former American record-holder who was once known as Magnificence on account of his physique of the same description, led Rick Wanamaker, the 6'8", 210-pound former Drake basketball center and 1970 NCAA decathlon champion, by 33 points.
The decathlon, which consists of 10 events over a two-day period, is often called the most grueling human activity. It isn't. The most grueling is compiling the table used for scoring the decathlon; this has been revised half a dozen times since the Swedes cooked up the event early in the century, little items like the fiber-glass vaulting pole having thrown the finest calculations out of whack. Suffice it to say that the better you do in each event, the more points you get, and leading by 33 points after eight events isn't a whole bunch, a good score for the decathlon being 8,000.
To get back to the officials, they, like almost everyone up in the grandstands at Porterville (Calif.) College, were trying to figure out how the leaders would fare in the final events, the javelin and the 1,500-meter run.
Only a few yards away, Hodge, wearing a red, white and blue track suit of his own design, was walking around glaring at everyone and muttering encouragement to himself. "C'mon, Russ," he would say with a snarl or "O.K., Russ, O.K." Although he claimed to be in "the best condition of my life," Hodge had been uptight all week. Now he was alarmed that he might once more lose the AAU title which had eluded him throughout his injury-filled career.
June 20, 1971
While Hodge fumed and fussed, Wanamaker lounged against a bench and grinned. That was hardly unusual because Wanamaker always grins. Throughout the meet Wanamaker was so nervous that he often seemed in imminent danger of going to sleep. But look at it this way: after going head to chest against Lew Alcindor, what has a man to fear from a mortal like Russ Hodge?
"There is no use getting tense or upset about this thing," said Wanamaker, smiling. "You just go to pieces. Hodge takes it so seriously he can beat himself. He's out there pushing all the time while I stand here relaxing."
Sure enough, Hodge did beat himself—with the help of some strategic pressure from Wanamaker. In the javelin Hodge huffed and puffed, but all he could come up with was a best heave of 193'8". He has done as much as 212. On his last try Wanamaker uncorked a throw of 214'5½"—a personal best. Suddenly Wanamaker had a 44-point lead heading into the 1,500, which meant Hodge had to beat him by more than eight seconds in that race to take the overall title. Why eight seconds? You can look it up in the scoring table.
"I told myself that I'd better throw the javelin hard so I wouldn't have to run the 1,500 too fast," said Wanamaker cheerfully. "That seemed like the logical thing to do."
As six runners took their mark for the 1,500, everybody was watching Wanamaker and Hodge. Granted, Army PFC Jeff Bennett, who is only 5'8" and 155 pounds, won—to finish third overall—but in the decathlon the action isn't necessarily up front. Way back there were Hodge and Wanamaker, and with less than a lap to go Hodge began his move.
Throughout the race Wanamaker had glanced over his shoulder, looking for Hodge. "Going into the far turn," said Wanamaker later, "I heard a fan yell 'Here he comes!' and I figured it was time for me to move." But even as Wanamaker picked up his own pace, Hodge swept past him, and as they thrashed down the stretch it was a question of how many seconds Hodge could gain. The answer was not enough. Hodge finished only 10 yards and two seconds ahead of Wanamaker, who became the new national champion, with 7,989 points to 7,958 for Hodge.
"I had this meet in my pocket," said Hodge later, "but I blew it in the throwing events. I should have had 300 more points. It's so silly I can't win one of these things. In fact, it's stupid."
Up until those final throbbing moments it was a toss-up as to which had aroused Porterville (pop. 12,950) more, the decathlon championship or the 400 airplanes that showed up for the Porterville Moonlight Fly-In. (A fly-in is when a bunch of guys who own planes all decide to fly into the same place at the same time.) As the Porterville Evening Recorder put it, "The national athletic event...combined with the Moonlight Fly-In will keep Porterville on the national prestige map."
The crowds at the decathlon were small, only a few hundred at peak, but this did not prevent the organizers from doing a job worthy of, say, a big half-time football show. There were speeches, marching bands and a decathlon queen and princess. And the local Congressman showed up to, uh, throw out the first javelin. It was safer than it sounds. The Congressman once was a decathlon man himself. Indeed, Bob Mathias, now 40, still looks trim enough to win a medal.
But, finally, the meet belonged to Wanamaker and Hodge. Coming out of the little town of Marengo, Iowa, Wanamaker was a high-school basketball star. "In Marengo the decathlon was unheard of," he said, "so I didn't even try it until I was a freshman at Drake." Even then it was something of an accident. "I wanted to compete in the Drake Relays," he said, "and freshmen were eligible only for the decathlon, so I entered and scored 5,763 points and had a good time."
In fact, he came to enjoy the decathlon more than basketball. "I guess maybe I'm just lazy," said Wanamaker, "but I didn't enjoy practice, especially the defensive drills, and I never could get up for meaningless games. I always seemed to play my best in the big ones." His best performance came in his biggest game when Drake almost upset UCLA in the 1969 NCAA semifinals. In the time he played, Wanamaker scored nine points and blocked an Alcindor shot, while Alcindor scored 14 and blocked two on Wanamaker. After his senior season, the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers offered Wanamaker a tryout, but he decided to pursue the decathlon. "Pro ball would have hindered my future in track, and I want to try for the Olympics," said Wanamaker. "After that I would like to get my weight up and try to make it in the pros."
For the present, Wanamaker sells insurance. His only other endeavor is public speaking, which is how he raises money for his decathlon equipment and such trips as the one to Porterville. All funds from Wanamaker's speaking engagements go directly into the nonprofit Rick Wanamaker Track Fund.
"I spoke at 22 dinners and banquets in March and April," he said. "Since I sell insurance during the day, this means that I had to practice after the dinners and after I drove back to Des Moines. When I knock on the Drake field-house door at midnight now, the custodians and the campus cop know it's me. In fact, some of them stay to watch me work out and a couple of janitors have even taken to giving me coaching tips."
Wanamaker manages to use his height and strength to advantage in such events as the high jump, discus and pole vault, but it is something of a hindrance in the other events. Coming out of the starting blocks in the 100 meters, for instance, he looks like a stork with staggers. His legs and arms flail in all directions and it takes him a full 10 yards to pull himself together. "And in the shotput," says Wanamaker, "I'm afraid to go into a deep crouch like the others because I might get my legs tangled up. So I just take a couple of little skips and let fly."
It is more difficult to explain why Hodge lost than why Wanamaker won. "I've put together close to my personal best in everything," said Wanamaker, "and that's the idea in the decathlon, to be consistent." His final total was more than 300 points higher than his previous record, with personal decathlon bests in the long jump (23'2"), shot (48'7"), javelin (214'5½") and discus (159'6½").
Meanwhile, the moody Hodge was falling below his personal best in everything, particularly the throwing events. "I can't believe it," he said. "What good is it for me to weigh 220 pounds if I can't throw any better?"
Of course, Hodge is still getting accustomed to having all of his parts in working order. For the past five years he has been plagued by injuries, the most serious being a torn ligament in his right knee suffered while long-jumping in 1967. In 1968 a pulled thigh muscle caused him to miss the Olympics. The next year a pulled groin muscle put him out of the AAU championships.
"I know that I've been holding something back since the knee injury," said Hodge. "There's nothing I can do about it. You have fears, but they're not always on a conscious level. It's frustrating to lose this thing when I know I'm in the best shape of my life."
Although in earshot, Wanamaker was not listening. He was too busy laughing and flashing the peace sign for a little kid with a movie camera.