Shortly before they nailed down the starting blocks for the 85th annual National AAU Track and Field Championships last week, the outlook was decidedly grim. Savaged by the Olympics and ravaged by the pros, the dwindled talent pool was further withered by the interminable NCAA-AAU crossfire. World-class athletes were threatening to boycott the meet and it seemed certain, with a third-rate team likely to bear its colors, that the U.S. would be made into mincemeat by the U.S.S.R. in Minsk next month. Better we should start a home-and-home series with Albania.
The pessimism was premature. After three days of slightly astonishing competition at Bakersfield, Calif., the U.S. got itself one of its youngest and most promising teams. The long and short of it is new faces, specifically those of 6'2" Steve Williams, a 19-year-old sprinter raised in the Bronx and glad of it, and 5'9" Rick Wohlhuter, a 24-year-old Chicago insurance man who has discovered that tendon stretching is good policy. Of the 13 champions who were on hand to defend the titles they won in 1972, an even dozen were dethroned. Only John Craft, who set a meet record with a 55'8¾" triple jump, repeated.
Williams did not break any records but he was the Most Valuable Athlete, winning both sprints for the first time since Ray Norton turned the trick in the 1960 nationals. He also accomplished the feat with soul, style, lousy starts and great finishes.
In both the 100- and 220-yard finals, Williams broke from the blocks late and slightly shaky before running down the field from far back. On Friday night, after four false starts had left everyone chilled and antsy, he caught Herb Washington in the last three yards, coolly glancing back over his left shoulder as he powered through the tape in 9.4 seconds. Earlier that evening Williams had run 9.2 in a semifinal, a time which more accurately reflects his speed. In the 220 on Saturday, despite a knee that almost buckled under him on the turn, he overtook Mark Lutz of Kansas in 20.4.
"I ran a very sloppy race," Williams said after the 100 to a bunch of nonbelievers. "My form was sloppy, my start was terrible. After all those false starts, we were standing there in the cold, tightening up. When I wanted to make my pop, it wouldn't come. That's why it took me so long to catch the rest of the field. I usually do it by the 60-yard mark, but this time it was more like 85.
"I was born in New York, lived in Texas and now I'm in San Diego," he went on. "I think I'm a better competitor coming from New York, because you are constantly competing in New York. Like winning it coming from that far back, not giving up. I learned that walking through the streets in New York where you have to move so you don't get knocked down. Getting on the subway is a fight. Shopping in a department store is a fight. To me, L.A. is a little country town."
A sophomore at San Diego State, where he majors in English and journalism, Williams runs with a quaint, bobbing-and-weaving, shoulder-rolling style that seems to have been choreographed by Bo Diddley. However, it got him a 9.1 at the Fresno Relays last month, which equals the world record.
"This kid could be running an 8.8," said Alex Woodley, coach of the Philadelphia Pioneer Club. "The problem is his start, and I think it's because of those long legs of his and the trouble he has with the blocks. He doesn't feel comfortable with his feet all scrunched up together that way. As a result, he gets almost no explosive force out of the blocks. In the 220 he might as well not even use them. If he had blocks that would allow him to start with his feet wide apart, he'd run 8.8 because that's really what he's doing now in the last 80 yards or so."
The main question that Williams has been answering since Fresno is whether or not he will run against Valery Borzov in Russia. It is now obvious that Williams will be there.
"People ask me more often whether I'd like to run against Borzov than what my age is," he says. "They try to make me the prominent sprinter. It's flattering. It seems like they are looking for the dominant sprinter they needed last year. I'm not that yet. You build up a consistency. My start is so bad.... Maybe I sell myself short, but I don't think I have it yet. But I have the tools to get it."
If Williams needs an example, he could take no better one that Wohlhuter, the classy little half-miler who has recovered magnificently from his experience at Munich, where he fell in his qualifying heat. More vexingly, he has no idea what caused his spill.
"I remember how disappointed I was," he says. "I was ready to go and I'd run some good half miles. I'm still not really sure what happened. There was no protest or anything. What could I do? I didn't qualify."
What he did this season was come back to run a 1:44.6 at the Vons Classic in Los Angeles last month for a world record, a goal that might have seemed ludicrous off his record at Notre Dame, where he spent most of his time hobbling around with sore Achilles' tendons.
"The main symptom was pain," Wohlhuter said the day before his 880 heat. "It took me two years to learn how to handle it. Now I stretch them every night with exercises and I haven't had any trouble."
At Bakersfield he expected the most trouble to come from Dave Wottle, the Olympic 800-meter champion and co-world record holder. Running another world record might be troublesome, too. "To approximate the kind of time I ran at the Vons," Wohlhuter said, "I'd need a fast pace through the first quarter or 660. A fast pace is what you have to have for a fast time. I'd hate to lead it, though. I'd rather wait for the kill. The slower the race the more guys are in it at the end. I'd like to cut out a few of those guys earlier if I could."
Wohlhuter and Wottle each won his qualifying heat Friday night, shortly before the sparse crowd was shocked by the unfamiliar spectacle of Rod Milburn, the world's finest high hurdler, finishing fifth after hitting the eighth and ninth hurdles. Tom Hill took the race in 13.2 with Tommie Lee White right behind him. Milburn put the blame on a pair of new, six-spike shoes—he usually uses a four-spike model—that made his legs wobble.
"I was trying to take it easy," Wohlhuter said of his 1:48 qualifying mark. "I felt all right. Wottle looked O.K. himself with his 1:48.9. I still hope we get a fast pace. If it comes, we're going to be there and take advantage of it."
In the final, Juris Luzins of the U.S. Marines led the pack through a 52.3 first quarter, the same pace that Wohlhuter had run back-to-back for the world record, while Wottle, as is often the case, ran dead last. At the 660 mark Wisconsin's Skip Kent, the NCAA champ, took the lead. Wohlhuter and Wottle began to accelerate with 180 yards to go. In seconds, each was unleashing an all-out kick, but Wottle turned it on too late and could not catch Wohlhuter in the stretch. Wohlhuter won in 1:45.6, another meet record, while Wottle finished second in 1:46.2, a mild embarrassment perhaps to the person who had draped a sign reading WIN IT WOTTLE on the stadium wall opposite the press room.
"Hey, I just noticed that," Wohlhuter said, looking at the banner. "Wow! How about that?"
He went on, "I'm really glad to get this over with. There's so much pressure in this meet. I think I worried more about it earlier in the day, though, than after I got here. I told myself, 'There are nine guys in the race and you've just got to beat eight of them.' "
That same philosophy obviously prevailed in two other meet-record races: Jim Bolding's 49.2 flight over the 440-yard intermediate hurdles and the three-mile run where Steve Prefontaine (who else?) ran 12:53.4 to miss the American record by four-tenths of a second. Nineteen-year-old Dwight Stones, the bronze medalist at Munich, got the night's other meet record when he won the high jump at 7'5", and Doug Brown of Tennessee came within four ticks of the meet and American record in the steeplechase, nipping Barry Brown in 8:26.8.
"I think it's a great team," said UCLA's Jim Bush, head coach of the American men's contingent that will compete at Munich and Florence before the Minsk meet. "It's a young team, but one that all of us are very excited about and I think that the AAU—Ollan Cassell and everyone else in the organization—has bent over backwards to see that we got a good team."
In paying a compliment to Cassell, a man hardly used to such treatment from NCAA coaches, Bush was referring to the fact that the AAU will allow athletes to join the team in Europe after competing abroad individually. In the past, staying with the AAU tour from start to finish was almost mandatory. The new deal means that Prefontaine, Stones and shot-putter Al Feuerbach, among others, will compete in Russia and that the team will not be weakened by political strife, as it was in Richmond for the U.S.-U.S.S.R. indoor meet. Come to think of it, common sense ain't a bad policy.