It is nearing noon on a wintry Wednesday as a glistening new Thunderbird cruises through the slums of North Philadelphia. A résumé on the seat beside the driver identifies him as Steven Earl Riddick, 25 years old, married, with a B.S. in psychology from Norfolk State College. The first name listed under "References" is "Governor Shapp, Pennsylvania." The most recent entries under "Accomplishments" are "1976—Olympic Team Gold Medalist 4x100 Relay" and "1975—Fastest Sprinter in the World." Were the subject to bring the résumé up to date he could, without undue boasting, add "1977—World's Fastest Human." Only once so far this year has anyone beaten Steve Riddick to a finish line.
On this particular morning, however, Riddick is running way behind schedule. He is late for a job interview. He needs a job. Such is the lot of a track star. The position available is that of a counselor in an "environmental center," a term used for institutions that house certain "socially deprived children." "If you're mean as hell or on drugs, you can't go to public school," explains Riddick in less euphemistic terms. Unfortunately, the address he has been given turns out to belong to an abandoned junkyard. While he tries to find the center, his eyes dart from broken glass to gutted tenement to vacant lot to stripped car. It is clear that Riddick does not feel at ease, "I think this job is too rough for me," he finally says.
Riddick has done part-time counseling, but in a better neighborhood. "I enjoy working with underprivileged people," he says. "They appreciate success more when they get it and they work harder to get it. Nine times out of 10 they don't abuse success. Only occasionally do you get a picklebrain."
Passing the junkyard for the third time, Riddick is beginning to suspect that a picklebrain arranged the job interview. "I'm lost and I'm mad now," he says. Clearly he is lost, but the anger doesn't show. "Fortunately, I never had it this bad," he says, depressed by the bleak streets, "but I know about it. If you're black, you know about it. Half your friends live this way."
March 28, 1977
As he turns a corner, a pair of miniature green running spikes hanging from the rearview mirror sway. They are replicas of the lime green ones he races in. The T-bird is green, too. Riddick, in fact, is a meticulously coordinated vision in green—dark green blazer, light gray-green slacks and matching vest, green print tie and green handkerchief.
At last he finds the environmental center. It isn't far from the junkyard but its entrance is on a side street. Riddick glances at his watch. "Oh, how I hate to be late," he mutters.
When you are chasing recognition as the World's Fastest Human, being late can indeed be tragic. "I consider myself the fastest man alive," says Riddick. "I have to believe that in order to compete at this level." During the winter indoor season Riddick won 15 of 16 sprints at distances from 50 yards to 60 meters. That lone loss—he finished fourth behind Don Quarrie, Ed Preston and Johnny Williams—came in his third meet of one exhausting weekend. It was also his 13th race of the year, and it fell on the 13th day of February. Perhaps more significantly, the race took place in Montreal, and it was in Montreal last July that Riddick suffered the bitterest disappointment of his running career, finishing fifth in a semifinal of the Olympic 100-meter dash when he turned his head five yards from the tape to see how the rest of the field was doing. The first four finishers qualified for the finals.
Ten days after that lone indoor loss, Riddick achieved a unique double under no less trying conditions. On Wednesday night he won the 60-meter dash in Milan, setting an Italian indoor record of 6.66. Two nights later he capped his U.S. indoor campaign with a victory in the 60-yard dash in the AAU national championships at Madison Square Garden. In that race he had moved from last to first with just five graceful strides late in the race and broke the tape with his right fist held high in exultation.
The raised fist has become a Riddick trademark. He says it is his way of expressing the frustration he has felt at not being recognized for his accomplishments. In large measure Riddick's 1977 indoor season can be viewed as one continuous race for acclaim. Despite his ranking as fastest sprinter in 1975—the result of running the fastest electronically timed 100 meters that year and the sixth fastest of all time, 10.05, in Zurich—and his brilliant anchor leg in the Olympic 4x100-meter relay last year, Riddick had not been invited to the first major indoor meet of the 1977 season, the Sunkist Games in Los Angeles. He virtually forced meet promoter Al Franken into issuing an invitation, by winning a 60-yard dash in 5.9, just .1 off the world record, at Richmond, Va. the weekend before the Sunkist. "We decided that was the first and it wasn't going to be the last," says Riddick's coach, Alex Woodley. At the Sunkist, Riddick won both the 50-and 60-yard dashes, beating Houston McTear in the shorter race and 100-meter Olympic gold medalist Hasely Crawford in the other. He hasn't been uninvited since.
"The significance of this indoor season," says Woodley, "is that Steve has projected himself. Now when you have a 100 outdoors, it won't be world class unless Steve is in it. The aficionados will say, 'Why no Riddick?' He's been emblazoned on their minds by winning all these meets. And now he won't be forgotten if he loses one or two races. He's built up a sort of insurance policy."
There are those, of course, who downplay Riddick's accomplishments. "Indoor track is bogus. You get outside and it's all forgotten," says Steve Williams, whom many recognize as the world's fastest sprinter. "Indoors is no indicator to outdoors. The distances are too short. If you add 10 yards on a 60, it changes the whole complexion of the race. Indoors you don't have a chance to see if an athlete has any polish. He can just blast from beginning to end without concentrating on form or technique. You can't do that in the 100."
Still, Williams concedes that the indoor season may have helped build Riddick's confidence after the disappointment at Montreal. The two are close friends, traveling together to many of the meets in Europe during the summer. "We can go out and party together because we're tall people," says Williams, who, like Riddick, is 6'3½". "Most sprinters are short and they have ego problems, the same as most short people."
As Williams suspected, Riddick is facing the outdoor season, which opens next month, brimming with confidence. "The indoor races aren't normally for me," says Riddick. "They are little more than a start and I don't really have any start at all. But still I'm winning. That's why I think I'm going to be awesome this summer. I'm going to hurt a lot of feelings."
The job interview completed, Riddick heads into the suburbs north of Philadelphia for the Abington High North Campus where Woodley teaches ninth-grade English. He has promised to submit to a question and answer session in one of his coach's classes. The students will then write papers on their impressions of the sprinter.
During the drive his thoughts turn to his own school days in Hampton, Va. where his father is a Church of Christ minister. "I didn't take up track until I was a junior in high school," he says, "and then only after I quit the football and the basketball teams. I'm not going to say I was a little rowdy, but...well." At first he was a long jumper and a high jumper. One day after practice he challenged the team's top sprinter to a race and beat him. Suddenly Steve Riddick was a dash man. In his first meet he ran 10.3 for 100 yards. He was running 10-flat by the end of that year and 9.8 his senior year.
Riddick was recruited for Norfolk State by Coach Dick Price. "They had a nice track program," Riddick says, "but they didn't have a track." The team practiced on the street that circled the gymnasium. Still, as a college freshman Riddick lowered his time to 9.3. As a sophomore and junior he starred on teams that won NCAA college-division team titles.
In his junior year Riddick married Theresita Renee Coleman. They stayed on at Norfolk State a year after his track eligibility had expired so he could finish up his degree. During that year Price put him in touch with Woodley, the coach of the Philadelphia Pioneers, and Riddick began to run for the club. He moved to Washington after graduation in June of 1975 and to Philadelphia in January of 1976. "I came to Philly because I wanted a change in environment," he says. "I'm sure I'll get a good job here. But I refuse to work nine to five. You get in that rut—up in the morning, go to work, go to your workout, go home and go to bed. I think life's more interesting than that."
Sixty of Woodley's students are primed with questions for Riddick. His answers are brief and to the point. Who is his toughest competitor? "I guess the clock is. I don't like to run against individuals." Should America put as much effort into women's sports as it does into men's? "We should put more because the women are so far behind the men." How did he feel when he won his gold medal in the relay? "I was kind of excited. Overwhelmed as a matter of fact."
The questions turn more personal. Does he smoke or drink? "Neither. I used to smoke when I was young but it's no good for you." This is something of a white lie. He occasionally permits himself a cigarette, perhaps one a day, and it hasn't been too long since he smoked a pack every two days. He cut back because he could feel a burning in his lungs when he came off the turn in his favorite race, the 200, in which he has a personal best of 20.1 (wind-aided) and was ranked eighth in the world last year.
Does he have a special diet? The kids might as well be asking Arnold Schwarzenegger if he believes in weight lifting. Riddick details his ritual of taking bee pollen pills—four of them each morning, at least half an hour before breakfast. A British coach got him started on the pills in 1975 and Riddick feels they have played an important role in his recent success. "And," he adds, "I haven't had a cold in two years." Does he eat any junk food? "I don't eat too many hamburgers. You eat a hamburger, you run like a hamburger."
With that the class ends. Riddick lingers to sign autographs, then heads for...McDonald's. Perhaps with his own remonstrances in mind, he orders a milk shake. Apparently, if you drink a milk shake, you don't run like a milk shake.
Thus fortified he readies himself for practice. One day a week Riddick and Woodley go to Princeton's Jadwin Gymnasium where there is an unbanked, eight-lap Tartan track. Otherwise, he meets Woodley at La Salle College in North Philadelphia where the track, a steeply banked, 12-laps-to-a-mile oval, is perched like a catwalk in the rafters of a basketball gym. "Normally this track would be a detriment," says Woodley as Riddick begins to warm up, "but it has taught Steve about body control. He used to blast right into those corners with no control." Woodley points to the void beyond as he evokes an image of Riddick, unable to slow himself down, pitching over the restraining bar at the end of one of the straightaways and plunging 50 feet to the hardwood floor below.
"When Steve came to me, he had two basic problems," says Woodley. "One was his start. If he was real lucky, he would be out of the blocks next to last. Secondly, he was running with his arms too high. He was using up all his strength with his arms and he couldn't go any faster. Consequently, he was tying up near the end of his races. He had never thought about form. He had only seen himself as part of a sort of blurred TV screen."
To its practitioners, the sprint is much more than just raw speed. "The 100 is more concentration than anything else," says Don Quarrie, the Olympic silver medalist in the event and gold medalist in the 200. "The minute you do something wrong you've lost."
This was the message that Woodley had to get across to Riddick. He succeeded by putting his sprinter in mile relays. "If he ran out of control in the quarter it would hurt him a lot worse than at a shorter distance," says Woodley. "All of a sudden that TV picture came in clear. He had it fine-tuned. One day he admitted to me that he had never known what he was doing in a race. Now he's mastered what he wanted to. The winning streak came with that mastery.
"The period after the Olympics was particularly tough for Steve. That race was just one of those things. It happened. You can't die. You have to go on and he did. He's proved himself this indoor season."
After a 2½-hour workout, Riddick drives home. He lives with his wife and their 5-month-old daughter Martinique, who is named after the island, in a two-bedroom apartment that is filled with mementos of his track career, mostly from a day in his honor that was staged last October by the town of Hampton. His gold medal is in Hampton with his parents, but the shoes he wore in the relay, now bronzed, are atop his stereo in Philadelphia.
"I feel I'm running 100% better than two years ago," Riddick says, making faces at Martinique, who is in a bassinet at his feet. "Alex made me understand that running is an art form. It's supposed to be pretty and it is if you do it right. Charlie Joseph [a fellow Pioneer who runs the 440] is the prettiest runner I've ever seen. I could sit and watch him all day long. I used to just run blindly, like McTear, and he looks awful. Now I know what I'm doing out there. I know I'm pretty."
The image of his newfound running form makes Riddick smile. He has decided to stay home for a couple of days, and pass up a meet the coming weekend because of some stiffness from his last race. "I could run if I had to," he says, "but I don't have to." There is a look of contentment on Riddick's face. He lapses into street talk to make sure the importance of what he is about to say will not be missed. "I ain't got to prove nothin' no more."