After a full year of watching Renaldo Nehemiah compete, Frank Costello, his coach at the University of Maryland, is still in something of a state of shock. Last year, as a freshman, Nehemiah was clipping tenths and hundredths off his personal best times in training with such regularity that Costello couldn't believe his stopwatch. Then in the fourth weekend of the indoor season, at New York's Millrose Games, Nehemiah convinced his coach that his watch was accurate by setting a world record of 7.07 in the 60-yard hurdles.
Last week, in only his second major indoor meet of the season, the National Invitational at Maryland, Nehemiah lowered the record to 7.02. So perhaps Nehemiah, who has a reputation for being self-contained and polite, could be excused for suddenly sounding a bit like one might expect a world-class hurdler to sound these days. "I didn't think I was going that fast," he said. "Right now I am only performing at about 75% efficiency. I still haven't run the perfect race."
Nehemiah has been unrelenting in his quest for perfection, and it is paying off. His world-record race at Maryland was his eighth consecutive major indoor victory. During the early part of last year's outdoor season he lost a number of races, including two to UCLA's Greg Foster, but then he beat Foster in the AAU championships. This coming outdoor season he is going all out for the 110-meter world record of 13.21 held by Alejandro Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as of Cuba. "This year he'll produce 13.2s many times," predicts Costello, "and I foresee 13.1s on several occasions. His outdoor world record will come in a biggie, a big international meet." Nehemiah agrees. "I need top competition to run my best race." he says. There should be plenty of opportunity for 19-year-old Nehemiah to get the competition he wants this year, with the Pan-American Games in July in Puerto Rico and the World Cup in Montreal the last week in August.
Nehemiah came to choose the hurdles, the most technically demanding of all races, for much the same reason he took up the saxophone when he was 11. "The trumpet has three valves." he says, "and on a trombone you just slide up and down. It didn't seem like anything. But all those keys on a saxophone were a challenge. I thought if I could master them, it would be a real uplift for me." Nehemiah learned to finger the keys of the alto sax so well that he won a scholarship to a summer music school in the seventh grade and performed as a soloist in his high school band.
Nehemiah's running talent showed itself even earlier. He earned his nickname "Skeets" before he could walk, crawling around so quickly that, says his father, Earl, "He seemed to be running." Earl Nehemiah saw to it that his sons, Renaldo and Dion, and his daughter Lisa all engaged in sports at an early age. Renaldo has a huge trophy he got in 1970 for scoring 13 touchdowns in one season while playing on a recreational-league team in his hometown, Scotch Plains, N.J.
The basement of the small, white, wooden house in which Nehemiah grew up always resembled a well-stocked gym. Much of Earl Nehemiah's earnings were spent on barbells, bowling balls, punching bags, boxing gloves, baseball mitts, footballs, baseballs, basketballs and shoes. "Everything we asked for, we got," says Dion, who is 18, "and Dad always bought the best. When everybody else was wearing $10 sneakers, Skeets already had a pair of $30 running shoes."
"I started the boys in football when "Skeets was 10 and Dion nine," says Earl. "Skeets would go to practice even when it was raining. Even when I told him there would be no practice, he would go. For him it was never too cold, too hot or too wet. When we went down to Grandmother's house in South Carolina, he would stay out in the hot sun all day shooting baskets."
Earl is a technician for Economy Bookbinders. "I'm not a college man," he says, "and this was the type of job where you can put in a lot of overtime." To make ends meet, he also took a night job as a gas-station attendant. "The boys would come every night and throw the football under the lights while I was waiting on cars," he says.
"We had wrestling and boxing matches," says Dion, "and I would wind up locked in the bathroom, or Skeets would be on his back. We both loved to win, but he beat me most of the time. In wrestling and boxing he was stronger, in football faster, and in basketball taller."
Six years ago, when Earl felt Lisa needed a course in self-defense, he enrolled all three of his children in a karate class. Dion eventually became an instructor with a black-belt rating. However, Renaldo quickly abandoned karate for track, even though he had been the most promising student of the three. "The very first time Skeets attended," says Lisa, "the first time he hit a board, he broke it in half."
Renaldo began to think about becoming a hurdler when he was in the seventh grade, but he was only 5'3", too short to handle the 3'3" high school barriers. Two years later and three inches taller, he ran the hurdles for the first time on a dare. "I liked them right away," he says. "I got banged up a few times, but I was determined. My coach told me one day I would be state champion."
He became just that in 1976 when he was a junior at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High. He also broke the New Jersey state record with a 13.6 for 120 yards. Nehemiah's senior year was nothing short of sensational. By then he had grown to six feet and 158 pounds, "with a very high crotch," says Jean Poquette, his high school coach. During the indoor season he tied four national high school records, including a hand-timed 6.9 for 60 yards over high school hurdles and a 7.2 over standard hurdles, which are three inches higher. Then, outdoors, in April, he twice tied the national high school record of 13.2 for 120 yards. On Memorial Day 1977 at the Eastern States High School Championships he bettered that clocking three times, skimming over the hurdles in 13.0 in a heat, 13.1 in the semifinals and finishing up with 12.9 in the finals. It was the first time any hurdler had been timed in under 13 seconds for 120 yards or 110 meters, over high school or standard hurdles.
Nehemiah feels that on that day he truly became a hurdler. "In the middle of the race," he recalls, "I suddenly became aware of my speed. It was more like a sprint. I wanted the 12.9. Then, believe it or not, I hit the seventh hurdle. I thought, 'I've had it.' "
Nehemiah's decision to enroll at Maryland in the fall of 1977 to study accounting prompted a rare argument in the Nehemiah household. Earl and Sheila, whom Renaldo's father married five years ago after his first wife died, favored USC, but Renaldo wanted to stay close to home. Besides, Bobby Calhoun, a sprinter and high school buddy, was already at Maryland, and so was Greg Robertson, a 13.6 hurdler with the nickname "Fly."
Just as Renaldo had hoped, the two star hurdlers have become close friends and fierce competitors. "Even in practice we can't ever relax," says Nehemiah. Robertson, who is as effervescent as Nehemiah is solemn, adds, "Before he came, I could stay out all night and still win in a dual meet the next day. Now I have to be more serious."
According to Costello, Nehemiah's hurdling technique verges on perfection, which is all the more amazing considering that Nehemiah honed it at home, hurdling over his bed while watching himself in a mirror. "Hurdling comes very natural to Skeets," says Costello. "He doesn't have to make his body do it. He concentrates on the tremendous snap in his lead leg."
"It's not the power in the legs that counts," says Nehemiah. "I have more power in my upper body. That's where you need it. The legs go where the arms take them."
Last year Costello often gave in to the temptation to use Nehemiah in as many as four events in an outdoor meet. After all, he was not only the Terps' best hurdler but also their best sprinter and quarter-miler. At the NCAA championships, he had to run a semifinal of the 400-meter relay and a hurdle semifinal in a span of 20 minutes. Seventy minutes later, in the hurdles final, he barely lost to a fresh Greg Foster, who set an American record of 13.22.
After Nehemiah got his revenge on Foster in the AAUs, he told the press that he might consider transferring. "He never said to me that I was running him in too many races," says Costello. "Maybe it was a communication problem and he couldn't say no. This year we have an agreement that he will speak up. Listen, he was great in high school; he is greater now. So we must be doing something right."
After the AAUs, Nehemiah went to Europe to chase after the world record. He competed in 13 races in six countries in about two months and lost only once. On that occasion, he admits, he underestimated his competition in a slow, inconsequential race. His best time on the tour was the 13.23 he ran at Zurich during a whipping rainstorm. That was his fifth junior world record of the year. "I would have gotten Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as' record if it hadn't rained," says Nehemiah.
He returned from Europe with a sore right ankle and, on doctor's orders, had to rest for three months. He didn't run again until Thanksgiving, but he lifted more weights than ever to strengthen and fill out his upper body.
Nehemiah didn't resume hurdling until Christmas. "His form had suffered somewhat," says Costello, "and we had to go back to very basic drills. For a while I was wondering whether he would be running indoors this year. And then he came back so very quickly. I know I'm handling pure gold."