From Soquel, a quiet, fog-enshrouded village near the northern shore of California's Monterey Bay, a two-lane relic known as the Old San Jose Road snakes up into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ten miles out of town three driveways branch off and disappear into towering redwoods: two head unremarkably uphill; the other, potholed, a little wider than a car, threads downward, clinging to the side of the hill, with a sheer drop of 200 feet on the right. In a clearing at the end of the trail is a narrow one-story wooden house. Here in this isolated eyrie live two of the biggest mesomorphs of U.S. track and field—6'1", 242-pound Al Feuerbach, the American shotput champion, and 6'4", 253-pound Mac Wilkins, the American champion, world-record holder and 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the discus.
At a time when the superstars of sport seem mainly interested in finding the best way to invest their first million, Feuerbach and Wilkins are anachronisms. They seek little other than self-improvement. "The goal," says Feuerbach, "is to gain as many feet and inches as I can possibly squeeze out of my body. The main concern is how well I can do, not how I compare to the rest of the world." Says Wilkins, "My motivation is to throw the discus as far as I can, to come as close to my ultimate potential as possible."
When Feuerbach went house-hunting in October of 1976, he had two requirements: there had to be an open space to throw the shot and a garage or carport suitable for weight training. As for living accommodations, Feuerbach would glance at the interior of a house only if it were convenient. "It was a matter of priorities," "explains Wilkins, who asked to rent a bedroom even before the house was bought. "Some people need a sunken bathtub. Some need a landing area for a shot."
After they moved in, Feuerbach and Wilkins carpeted, paneled, wallpapered and reshingled, but not before completing the shotput area and the weight room. The shot circle is in front of the house, at the far end of the spot where the driveway enters the property. A porch provides a perfect vantage point to critique the owner's throws. The landing area, which is filled with dirt and gravel, lies 15 yards beyond the porch, in the shade of some madrona trees.
July 2, 1978
At the opposite end of the house, a concrete floor was laid and a carport enclosed to form the weight room, which has as its centerpiece a $2,500 Schnell Trainer, a German weight machine. On one wall are two six-by-sixes running from floor to ceiling with pegs at various heights to hold the barbell used in bench presses and squats. The bar is bent from being loaded with as much as 700 pounds.
Feuerbach, who held the world record of 71'7" from May 1973 to February 1976, knows there are whispers that he is over the hill. "It bothers me that people think that I've lost it and that I'm struggling," he says, while admitting that he has been able to top 70 feet only once in the past three years. "I knew why I was throwing the way I did. Now I feel almost like I used to before I was successful. I have something to prove."
Starting in November, after a month-long layoff from competition, Feuerbach had Wilkins film his throwing for eight straight weeks. The edited film is a revelation. At the start, Feuerbach throws just 57 feet, and the pain and effort as a result of the layoff are obvious. At the finish, he is obviously larger and throwing 68 feet with ease.
At the end of April, at the San Jose Invitational, Feuerbach threw 69'1¾", his best in competition since 1976. In practice he hit 70'4". In early May he came within 10 pounds of his best weightlifts ever. Then, on May 17, he strained his back while working out. For weeks he had to exercise patience more than muscles. Still, his training had built his strength and technique to such a degree that on June 10 in Los Angeles, even with a cautious delivery—one with very little body movement—he won the national AAU title with a throw of 67'1½".
Wilkins, who is 27, three years younger than Feuerbach, also seeks vindication, but his is more ideological than physical. No one argues when Big Mac says, "When I've got my throwing together, I'm competing against myself, because no one can beat me." But Wilkins has chosen to use his prowess as a platform to attack America's track and field Establishment. Specifically, he has criticized the AAU and the U.S. Olympic Committee for failing to recognize the importance of medical research into human performance and for not providing adequate coaching and support for postgraduate athletes.
"I hate to see human resources wasted," declares Wilkins. "The people who run our amateur organizations have an outdated view of what it takes to achieve maximum potential. They are very petty, jealous people trying to maintain the status quo, which means their power, but they are not interested in promoting efficient athletic achievement."
Outside the weight room is a concrete slab with a regulation 8'2½" discus circle cast into it. Wilkins poured the circle this spring with the help of two local high school teachers. It lies at the base of a steep embankment covered with netting, and Mac practices his delivery by throwing the discus here. Inscribed in one corner of the concrete slab are the words THE AMERICAN WAY (4/9/78). "That's because we did this the American way," says Wilkins, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "...my money, my ingenuity, my sweat." Says Feuerbach, "The USOC can't take any credit for it."
Adds Wilkins, "This house is a lifestyle. The woods, these hills, give us a sense of being apart, being isolated, being different—which is kind of the feeling we get from what we're doing in amateur sports. It's not so much what we've achieved but that we are doing what we think is right for ourselves rather than what others might consider proper."
The interior of the house is spartan. The main room, in essence, is a large eat-in kitchen with a redwood picnic table and benches. Wilkins calls it The Lodge. The top half of one of the walls is covered in burlap and decorated with mementos. There is a picture of President Ford hurling a discus under Feuerbach's watchful eye and another of a heavily bearded Wilkins throwing in Montreal. The two clocks in the room are permanently set at two minutes to seven. Parties in The Lodge start at 7:30 p.m. Two minutes to seven is the acceptable time to get a head start on the guests, whether there are going to be guests or not.
Next to The Lodge is the living room, which contains a couch, a coffee table, a TV and a stereo. The stereo is clearly the most expensive item of furniture. The two bedrooms are located at opposite ends of the house. "We like to point that out," says Wilkins. Feuerbach's room is the neater of the two. "Mac doesn't have a wife," says Feuerbach.
Not that Feuerbach's wife Gudrun, a Swede whom he married during the Oktoberfest in Munich last year, is omnipresent...or even anywhere to be seen most of the time. She is a stewardess for Scanair, a charter airline, and lives in Stockholm. Nevertheless, the Feuerbachs have managed to spend more days together than apart. It hasn't been easy.
Take March, for instance, a more or less typical month. It started with Gudrun spending eight days in Sri Lanka, two in Athens and a night in Stockholm before flying 20 hours to San Francisco. The Feuerbachs spent one night there, then drove to Squaw Valley, where Gudrun, an avid skier, helped Al get through his first beginners' class. After two days skiing, followed by a night in the house in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Feuerbachs flew to Stockholm for a six-hour catnap before moving on to West Germany. In Munich, two hours after their plane touched down, Al won the heavyweight class of the Greater Bavarian Weightlifting Championships—Feuerbach is no slouch at competitive weightlifting; in 1974 he was the national AAU heavyweight champion.
The next day, a Sunday, the Feuerbachs took a train to Milan to watch the European indoor track championships. Two nights later, Al put the shot for the U.S. in a meet against a European team and won. On Thursday the Feuerbachs left for the Swiss Alps, spending one night in Lugano before arriving in Arosa in time for the World Cup ski races. Saturday night they were back near Munich, in the small town of Fürstenfeldbruch, which Wilkins calls "first and second base." They spent the following day in Munich before returning to Stockholm. After four days there, Al flew back to the States. "An uneventful trip," he told Wilkins. "Nothing really to report."
The Feuerbachs lead such separate lives that Al refers to the house in the Santa Cruz Mountains as "my house." Wilkins, though only a boarder, will occasionally refer to the retreat as "our house." In fact, when he is describing the Feuerbach wedding, which he attended, Wilkins says "we" as if he, too, were somehow included in the union.
Wilkins has a deep respect for Gudrun, but both are strong-willed and they occasionally clash. "Gudrun and Mac both claim their territory and defend it," says Al, with a smile. "At breakfast one will say, That's my toast,' and the other will say, 'No, it's mine.' I can't see hassling. If they claim my toast, I just say, 'O.K., it's yours,' and go make another piece."
Therein lies the principal difference between Feuerbach and Wilkins, and it is reflected in their countenances. Feuerbach's is open and warm, inviting friendship. A totally pacific soul, he smiles constantly. When he isn't studying Swedish so he can talk with his mother-in-law, Feuerbach spends his free time practicing on his guitar. The first medal he ever won in school was for clarinet playing, not shotputting.
Wilkins' visage, with drooping mustache and intense green eyes, can be menacing. Most of the time he is friendly and soft-spoken, but he is a volatile, involved person. His concern for wasted resources extends to the environment. Asked to address the Oregon legislature, he spoke not a word about track and field but instead thanked his home state for leading the nation in passing conservation laws. The sight of a big car, a "gas hog," infuriates him. Wilkins elects to transport his massive frame in a Volkswagen.
"There are sort of two different Als," says Wilkins. "Superficially, he seems very easygoing, mild and passive. But some things are very important to him, like his wife and throwing. If something is not that important, he just doesn't waste his time with an opinion or an emotion. Actually he's more intense than he appears, and I'm more mellow than I appear. The difference lies in the way we express our feelings." Feuerbach agrees. "When Mac gets upset about something, he'll yell about it," he says. "I'll write a song about it."
Wilkins and Feuerbach have been friends since 1973. "I was on top when I first met Mac," Feuerbach recalls. "I was the world-record holder. He was just a good college discus thrower." Feuerbach had risen to prominence quickly. In December of 1969 he was a senior at Emporia (Kansas) State Teachers College, with a best put of 58'9½". Two years later he set an indoor world record of 68'11". He broke that mark in 1972 and again early in 1973, eventually raising the standard to 69'5¾". On the fifth of May that year he set the outdoor world record, which stood for three years, until Terry Albritton pushed it to 71'8½". The current mark is 72'2¼" held by Alexander Barishnikov of the U.S.S.R.
In 1973 Wilkins was just beginning to make a name for himself. That was the year he graduated from the University of Oregon, where he was known as Multiple Mac because he threw the discus, the shot, the hammer and the javelin. A week after winning the NCAA discus title and finishing third in the shot, he also took the AAU discus crown. Curiously, considering their temperaments, Wilkins' development was much slower than Feuerbach's. In 1974 Mac went to graduate school at Oregon to study secondary education, and finished second in the discus at the AAUs. The next year he was runner-up again, after spending a year coaching at South Eugene (Ore.) High School.
That summer Wilkins traveled to Europe to compete. He thought he had a lot of meets with guaranteed expense money lined up, but when he came in fifth in his first meet, at Helsinki, he suddenly was short of invitations. Wilkins was taken in by Markku Tuokku, a Finnish discus thrower with whom he trained for three weeks. At the end of that stay he went to Sweden and won in two consecutive meets. Again, one of the other discus throwers, this time Ricky Bruch of Sweden, a former world-record holder, invited Wilkins to train at his home. Feuerbach was already there as a guest.
Bruch had a house with a training room and a swimming pool, and Wilkins made rapid progress. "Bruch also helped get me into a lot of competitions, which were very beneficial," says Wilkins. "More important, he and his surroundings were inspiring. They provided me with a different attitude—more motivated, more positive. I had had my share of self-doubts." Before the summer was over, Wilkins had thrown a lifetime-best 219'1".
Wilkins says he never thought of an Olympic gold medal until April 24, 1976, when he set a world record of 226'11" at the Mount SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif. One week later, in one of the most impressive performances in track and field history, he broke his new world record three straight times in San Jose. His first three throws were 229 feet, 230'5" and 232'6". The last still stands as the world record, although it is imperiled. Two months ago, again at San Jose, Wilkins uncorked a heave of 231'3" and equaled it at the end of May in Eugene.
For all his dominance in the discus, it was the Montreal Olympics that may have forever colored the public perception of Wilkins. With seven empty days to go before their events, Wilkins and Feuerbach refused to accompany the U.S. team from its training headquarters in Plattsburgh, N.Y. to the Olympic Village on schedule; Feuerbach's experience in Munich in 1972, where he came in fifth in the shot, had convinced him that Olympic Villages are a poor place to live when training. Team officials ordered the two AWOL athletes to report to Montreal or face possible expulsion from the squad. Reluctantly, they checked in at Montreal. But because it was quickly apparent that the officials had no real power, or reason, to keep them there, they bailed out, heading for Three Rivers, Quebec, 88 miles away.
When Wilkins and Feuerbach reappeared in the Olympic Village, Feuerbach was hounded by journalists wanting to know why they had stayed away. He successfully avoided answering the question. However, when Wilkins won the gold medal with a throw of 221'5"—Feuerbach came in fourth in the shot—he took advantage of his platform, denouncing the USOC, which, he said, had caused him more trouble than the competition itself. "I'm very embarrassed to associate with officials like that," he declared. Asked if he was proud to have won a medal for the U.S., he said, "No, I'm proud that I won it for Mac Wilkins." Instead of recanting, he later added, "I would like to see East Germany win all the medals. Maybe that would shake up our people a bit."
This hardly endeared Wilkins to the USOC. President Philip O. Krumm called him a "grandstander and a pop-off," implying that his remarks were simply a trendy thing to say, "like hating your parents." Recalling those days with a wink, Feuerbach says, "I missed my chance. I could have said the same things Mac did and then I could have been the No. 1 jerk in America for a week or two."
For Wilkins, however, vindication wasn't long in coming. Early in 1977 the President's Commission on Olympic Sports issued a report that attacked America's amateur athletic organizations for many of the shortcomings that Wilkins long had pointed out. And later last year, Krumm's successor, Robert J. Kane, led the way toward remedying the situation, instituting many of the changes Wilkins had been recommending.
On a recent evening after a hard day of training, Wilkins and Feuerbach retired to the porch overlooking the shot-put landing area. Feuerbach hauled out his guitar and played one of his songs, The Games.
A game is something that one or more people play
But in the Games it seems the nations have the say.
They say, "Go, my patriotic son, and bring home that gold.
But if you fail you've failed the nation as a whole.
You see, it's obvious to all you didn't even try
Because you weren't on the victory stand and you didn't even cry.
But what's this you say about the satisfaction you feel?
And you trained very hard from the heart. Big deal.
You've failed our country, you've failed our God
And you failed our children who watched you fall so hard.
A winner, that's all we want to see.
But most of all you failed ABC-TV."
The tune, peaceful and quiet, filled the mountain stillness.