In one of the minor tragedies buried under the carnage of the 1972 Olympic Games, Rich Wohlhuter tripped and fell in the semifinals of the 800-meter run and never got to the finals. His fall was something of a mystery. "Someone said I tripped on a sunbeam," Wohlhuter says, "and I guess that's about as good an explanation as any. I really don't know what happened, but that's all behind me. I did fall—but I've gotten up and kept going."
Indeed, as Wohlhuter made patently evident last weekend at the national AAU track and field championships in Los Angeles, he has kept going at a strong, fast, record-shattering pace. Since his inelegant stumble at Munich, Wohlhuter has twice broken the world record for the half mile, most recently running a 1:44.1 on June 8 at Eugene, Ore., only a week after he had turned in a 3:55.1 mile. Last Saturday in UCLA's Drake Stadium he breezed to victory in the AAU 800 meters in 1:43.9, two-tenths of a second off the world record for that event. All proof, of course, that you can't keep a good man down.
Wohlhuter does not look like a world-class athlete and his demeanor is polite and mild-mannered, like Clark Kent's. A Notre Dame graduate, Wohlhuter seems perfectly suited to his job as a claims adjuster for the Continental Assurance Co. of Chicago. He looks like a guy who would be fascinated by the Dewey Decimal System and, in further contrast to others of his athletic calling, he voices no contempt for the AAU, bears no grudges toward rivals and ranks somewhere between Caspar Milquetoast and Albert Schweitzer as a prima donna. Last week during the AAU championships he finished a conversation with a persistent reporter with the mild request: "No phone calls tomorrow night, please. I've got to do my laundry." On first impression, he is the nice guy who finishes last.
On the track, however, Wohlhuter is a study in tenacity and aggression, his strength and speed as evident as his sharp, if occasional, wit. (At the UCLA pool Saturday morning, which was ringed by the pretty girls who seem to be the primary fauna of the Westwood campus, Wohlhuter said, "If you transferred here from Notre Dame, you'd need a psychiatrist.") North Carolina Central's Coach Leroy Walker says, "Rick has got himself together so well he thinks he owns his race. And maybe he does." In competition he occasionally overcomes the reluctance felt by most runners—Filbert Bayi excepted—and sets the pace from the gun, but he prefers to stay behind through the early stages of a race, if the leaders out in front are going fast enough. "I feel I can run a strong race from 400 to 600 yards," he says, "but my real strength comes on in the last 200."
June 30, 1974
In the AAU meet Wohlhuter demonstrated his style in a trial heat of the 800, moving into second place at 600 meters and then turning on a kick that was both formidable and relaxed to win in a brisk 1:46.6. "His feet hardly touched the ground," marveled one spectator. The 800 final figured to be a showdown between Wohlhuter and John Walker of New Zealand, who had paused in California on his way to Europe. Walker had finished an impressive second to Bayi in the 1,500 meters at the Commonwealth Games last February, but in his trial heat he finished third in 1:49.2, and his stride seemed labored and heavy.
In Saturday's final, Wohlhuter got an assist from Ray Geter of Prairie View A&M, who led the field through the first 400 meters in 51.3 seconds. Wohlhuter hung on Geter's elbow until they came out of the third turn into the backstretch. Then Wohlhuter moved to the fore and kicked through the finish to win by 10 meters. His 1:43.9 equaled the second-fastest time ever run in the event. Walker, heavy stride notwithstanding, was a good second in 1:45.3.
"Getting a world record is secondary to winning," Wohlhuter said afterward. "There's too much pressure to go for a record every time. I wasn't dramatically worried about anyone in the field today. I felt all I had to do was get out and get going. I'll get the record eventually." Track nuts, who subtract .7 seconds from world-class half-mile times to get an equivalent time for the slightly shorter 800 meters (about 875 yards), say that Wohlhuter has already run the 800 faster than anyone else; during his world-record 1:44.1 half mile he passed the 800-meter point in an unofficial 1:43.4, well under Marcello Fiasconaro's world-record 1:43.7.
Wohlhuter's next chance to set a new mark may come a week from now in the U.S.-U.S.S.R. dual meet at Durham, N.C., where he expects to run against Russia's Yevgeniy Arzhanov, the silver medalist in the 800 at Munich. Wohlhuter was beaten by Arzhanov in Minsk last summer in a slow, tactical race. "It's going to be different this time," the American says. "I feel I have a score to settle. I'd like to be past the finish line, turned around, waving him across."
Later in the summer, Wohlhuter expects to compete in Europe in both the 800 and 1,500. Whether his schedule and Bayi's will coincide is not certain, but he says, "I can't wait to meet Bayi. I'd certainly like to run a fast race with him. In the 1,500 I might not beat him, but I'll give him a go."