As far as the U.S. women's team was concerned, the only difference between last week's track meet against the U.S.S.R. in the Richmond Coliseum and the 10 that preceded it was that this was the first to be held indoors. Of the previous 10, the Russians had won nine. Laughing. "We might get three firsts," said Grant Dungee, one of the U.S. coaches. He ticked them off: Patty Johnson in the 60-yard hurdles; Iris Davis in the 60-yard dash; Martha Watson in the long jump.
As usual, the fond hope was that the U.S. men's team, which had won eight of the 10 earlier meets, would pile up enough points for an overall victory. Fat chance. The U.S. women had not only lost in the past, they had lost so badly that the U.S. men had been able to overcome the deficit just twice. And this time the U.S. women's hopes resided in a bunch of girls.
On the morning of the meet, four members of the kiddie corps sat in a downtown Richmond restaurant and pondered their fate. The oldest was Kathy Gibbons, 17, of Phoenix, who would run the anchor leg on the two-mile-relay team. The youngest was Sue Parks, 15, of Ypsilanti, Mich., who would run the first leg. Then there were Carol Hudson, who was entered in the half, and Debbie Heald, who would be in the mile against Russia's Tamara Pangelova, 26, and Ludmila Braghina, 28. Carol, of Highland, N. Mex., and Debbie, of La Mirada, Calif., are 16. Earlier this month, Pangelova set the world indoor record for 1,500 meters (4:14.6) in the European championships. Braghina was second.
As well as adolescence, the four teenagers had another common bond: fear. But they were young enough to be amused by it. Their thoughts skipped from Debbie's inability to read 70 pages of biology homework, to the previous night's pillow fight, to the drunks who kept them awake by singing Irish songs, to the town going to bed at 10 p.m. and, apparently, taking Richmond's supply of Coke with it. And always to the Russians.
March 27, 1972
"You go against the Russians and you hope to catch them on an off-day," said Debbie. "I figure I'll finish fourth."
Kathy shrugged. "You can't expect miracles."
"I don't have a totally negative attitude," Debbie said. "Something could happen."
Kathy looked doubtful. "They're so strong. But give us four more years."
"If people would only wait for us to grow up," Debbie said.
"People don't understand what we're up against," said Sue. "They want to know why we don't win. In Berkeley last year I jumped the best I ever had, but I finished last. What am I supposed to do? The Russian high-jumps six feet and right now I can't. And people criticize me."
The day of the meet, Debbie Heald awoke with the hope that she would run a 4:42 or a 4:44; her personal best was 4:47. "The 4:42 is my realistic dream," she explained,' 'but you also have to have an outside dream. This time mine is a 4:40. I'd love that."
For breakfast she had a waffle, a race-day superstition. Then she slipped on her lucky T shirt, put on her lucky low-cut golf socks with blue and yellow fuzzy balls, and set off to test her dreams. "I feel sorry for Doris Brown," she said. "She must be under a lot of pressure to win. She's our best miler and people expect it. Me, they can't expect much of and so I've got nothing to lose, have I?"
If there was any pressure, Doris Brown, a 29-year-old phys-ed teacher at Seattle Pacific College and five-time winner of the international cross-country championship, was handling it. Long ago she decided she would run against people, not nations or ideologies or causes. "To a lot of people we have to beat the Russians. But, really, this meet is only a chance for some very fine competition against friends. People come up and say 'Good luck. Beat those Russians. Go get 'em.' I feel hypocritical always saying 'Yes. Thank you.' Sometimes I feel like saying, 'Hey, look, they're people too, just like you. Why make something else out of it?' "
"Yeah, they're people," said Denise Wood, a 21-year-old shotputter, "but they are so much better than us. I know I'll get slaughtered."
Denise's personal best is 47'9½". Her opponents were Antonia Ivanova, who has a best of 62'1¾" and Yelena Korableva, who has hit 57'10". Two nights before the meet Denise met Yelena at a banquet. "I was afraid to see them," she said. "I expected them to be real masculine and all. But Yelena, well, she's big, but she's very feminine. But I haven't seen Ivanova. Probably because I'm afraid to."
If Denise was avoiding the Russians, the Russians weren't avoiding the Americans. "Our Yelena Ringa told me she likes to watch the American girls because they are so much in fashion," said Yuri Darakhvelidze, a writer for Soviet-ski Sport. "They all dress so well. And all our men say, 'They are so young.' Our women don't say anything about that. They don't like that."
As expected, the U.S. girls jumped into an early lead. Patty Johnson won the hurdles in 7.4, an American indoor record, with Lacey O'Neal second in 7.5. Iris Davis and Martha Watson were one-two in the dash, both being timed in 6.6.
Coach Grant Dungee's prediction was fulfilled when Martha Watson won the long jump with an American indoor record leap of 21'¾". That gave the U.S. girls a 13-point lead. Still, the public-address announcer sounded as though he were asking Marie Antoinette to approach the guillotine as he called the field for the 880. Up stepped Wendy Koenig of Estes Park, Colo., and Carol Hudson, a pair of nervous 16-year-olds. "You can do it," Wendy said to herself. "Don't worry. They're just nice people. It's O.K. No problem."
Then the gun went off. Two minutes and 11 seconds later Wendy broke the tape, with the Russians still en route and Carol in between them. As she finished, Wendy thought,' 'No way. I didn't really do it. Oh, wow!"
Momentarily stunned, the Russians turned to their mile ace, Tamara Pangelova, to get them moving. They set off, with Pangelova taking charge, Doris Brown second, Braghina third and Debbie Heald fourth. They did the quarter in 0:67. "Hey, that's good," thought Debbie. "But it doesn't feel that fast. I feel good." She felt so good she zipped around Braghina and then Doris, and that surprised her. "You're passing Doris," she thought. "You must be doing better than you thought." She started to think about finishing second. But with two laps to go, Doris powered past her and she thought, "Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted."
That's all Doris remembers of the race. She ran the last two laps blacked out. She doesn't remember Debbie passing her on the final lap, or the roar of the crowd as the teen-ager took off after Pangelova, passed her with 20 yards to go and won in an indoor-world-record 4:38.5.
Debbie tried to figure out how she had won, but after a few moments she gave up and laughed. "When I went past the Russian off the turn, it seemed like they were moving the tape and I was running in place. When I finally reached it, it was the greatest."
The clincher was left to Kathy Hammond, only 20 but a seasoned internationalist and one of the U.S.'s top quarter-milers. She was in the 600 and she was worried that the distance might be too long. The race had been planned as a 500, but the Russians don't like short races and they insisted it be 600. Kathy has run 500 yards in 1:06.3, the indoor world record. "I don't like the idea of that extra distance," she said. "But after the way those two kids ran, how can I let them down. I'll just go out fast and hope I can hold on." Streaking into the lead from the start, Kathy won in 1:20.5 for the U.S. girls' second world record.
That gave them a 44-22 lead, and while there were still three events to go, there weren't enough points left for the Russians to catch up. Although the U.S.S.R. swept the shot, the high jump and the two-mile relay, the U.S. girls' final margin was 52-43. And with the men winning 79-69, the U.S. wound up with its third overall title.
As the crowd filed from the Coliseum, Wendy Koenig set off in search of Debbie Heald. The two teen-agers had decided to celebrate with a bottle of Coke. If they could find one anywhere in Richmond.