One of Jan Merrill's prized possessions is a cartoon she received from a friend last fall. It shows a woman runner, whose severe features are unmistakably Merrill's, facing a man with a press badge. "You know, I can really relate to what you're into," the reporter is saying. "I jog too!" Now 22, Merrill is the best woman middle-distance runner in the U.S.—she holds American records at 1,500 and 3,000 meters—and the best in the world when it comes to not talking about herself or her races. Her contempt for reporters is almost as legendary as Jackie O's for paparazzi. While her fellow competitors talk to sportswriters after a race, the 5'6" Merrill is likely to duck behind her 6'3" coach, Norm Higgins, and head for the nearest exit. After Merrill won the 1977 Women's AAU cross-country championship in San Bernardino, Calif., Higgins announced that he would "allow" the press exactly 10 questions. The final question to Merrill was: "Why won't you speak to the press more?" "No comment," interjected Higgins, answering for his charge, which is not at all unusual. In fact, on those rare occasions when Merrill does get her say, she will often stop in midsentence and withdraw with a "You'll have to ask my coach."
"You see, we aren't from a big city," says Jan Merrill's mother Josephine, a warm woman who rarely stops smiling. "We're quite unsophisticated. We live a simple life. Still, as a family we're quite verbose—except for Janny. She was always quiet. She would never insist on making her point. As for Mr. Higgins, with him I can never get a word in edgewise."
Hardly anyone can. "People think we are isolated," Higgins says of himself and Jan, "but we're not. It's all artificial. We live in a nice community where people are friendly and kind of old-fashioned. When we get to New York or the West Coast, we find that people there lead a different kind of life. You know what I mean? After a meet, I want Jan to get home as quickly as possible, so she can be in her own environment."
Home for Janice Melbourne Merrill is a comfortable wood-paneled house in Waterford, Conn. (pop., 4,400), 200 yards from Long Island Sound. A few miles away are New London and Connecticut College, where Merrill is a senior majoring in math. Scattered throughout the area are wildlife refuges, like Mamacoke Island in the college's Arboretum, sanctuaries where Merrill does much of her training. The nearby Coast Guard Academy has a 200-meter Tartan track for training indoors in winter, and a 400-meter outdoor dirt track.
February 26, 1979
Between classes, Merrill usually can be found studying in the farthest corner of the Connecticut College library. Bent over a book, she appears almost fragile. Her long brown hair is no longer drawn back severely in a ponytail, as it is when she runs, but cascades softly over her shoulders and back. Nowhere is there a hint of the hard, determined expression she wears when competing.
In similar contrast, Merrill is lively and open in college. In her French classes she converses freely with the teacher and her fellow students. When Higgins asks her to tend his sporting-goods store in New London, she is an attentive saleswoman. When she is with her family, she laughs loudly and spontaneously.
Around the dinner table, after grace has been said, the conversation often turns to swimming. Long before Jan started running, the Merrills were a swimming family. Jan herself swam competitively until she discovered that "in running there is more freedom." Jan seems to enjoy discussing her 17-year-old brother Joby's feats rather than her own. Joby, the youngest in the family, is a crack freestyler at St. Bernard High School. Their father, John, is the swimming coach at New London High. In the 1977 National Masters he won the 200-meter backstroke in his age group (60 to 64). Mrs. Merrill is the only member of the family who has never engaged in athletics, but of late she has taken up jogging.
The Merrills value academic achievement as highly as track or swimming titles. Jan's father, who has a masters degree in education from the University of Hartford, was a department head at the Navy's Underwater Systems Center in New London until his retirement last month; he now teaches mathematics and computer science at nearby Mitchell College. Mrs. Merrill's academic career is even more impressive, considering that she didn't become serious about it until she was 46. "I went back to college because I hate unfinished business," she says. She graduated from Connecticut College with a B.A. in chemistry in 1970 at the age of 49 and now is a lab instructor at Mitchell. Their older daughter, Joy, who is 29 and married, has a degree in history. Their son John, 26, is a graduate student at Harvard, and James, 20, is a junior at Lehigh.
Only a few trophies are on display around the house. They are either for swimming or track, depending on which member of the family had a victory most recently. The old trophies are consigned to the attic as fresh ones arrive. Over Jan's bed is an oil painting of a pair of yellow running shoes with three runners in the background. It was painted by Mrs. Merrill. "Painting helps me keep my sanity in this house where everybody talks about times," she says. The predominant color in Jan's room is olive-green—green carpet, green desk. "I like green," says Jan, "because my eyes are hazel with a green tint to them." Somehow the thought that Jan Merrill, who prefers to wear slacks and sweaters, would create a whole environment to complement her eyes is not an easy one to accept.
The gymnasium at the Coast Guard Academy is where Norm Higgins' charges engage in their indoor workouts. Besides Merrill, Higgins also coaches Judy Fontaine, a 21-year-old who was the second-best American in last year's AAU pentathlon championships. Merrill and Fontaine train every day, often on their own after Higgins has given them programs that they follow to the letter.
"In our programs we do different things, like throwing logs," says Higgins, who is something of an original. "I got that from an old book I found in Germany. I believe in total body involvement." Higgins also believes that rigorous hill training should be largely confined to the fall season. "The misuse of hill training is like putting vinegar in apple pie," he says.
Another of Higgins' innovations is the "maze," a bewildering 3,000-meter course in the Arboretum, in which Merrill encounters a number of three-way forks and great slabs of rocks. "The maze is part of a test," he says. "You are not only asked to use your legs, but your brains as well." Mamacoke Island, where Merrill also trains, can only be reached by splashing through a marsh in which the water sometimes reaches well above Jan's ankles. "It's so beautiful to see her run through the marsh," Higgins says. "She has to work so hard."
On Mamacoke, where Merrill undertakes her most demanding long runs—the 10 kilometers she usually covers on Wednesdays and Sundays—she must pick her way over fallen trees, across rocks covered with slippery moss and, in winter, sheets of ice. She also trains on a 3,000-meter course along Miller Pond off the Old Colchester Road. Here the trail drops down steeply over boulders, almost to where the runoff from Miller Pond dam forms small waterfalls. "This helps you to jump like an elk," says Higgins. "On the ridge you can see deer sometimes." The ridge is part of the trail. "Once a group of dirt bike riders chased Jan all the way to the top," recalls Higgins, seemingly pleased with the extra incentive the bikers provided.
Higgins never shouts at Merrill or Fontaine and seldom criticizes. "I let them discover their own mistakes," he says. He will telephone them at night to find out how they feel and adapt his next day's schedule accordingly. From time to time he consults the logs the women keep to see whether his instructions have become too repetitive. "There are very few workouts that are the same," says Merrill. "Since I can't anticipate what he is going to tell me to do, I may be shocked sometimes. But after I have done it, I realize it was within my capabilities. Mr. Higgins knows what I am capable of."
Higgins the talker and teacher, Merrill the listener and doer. A melding of opposites. But the two share at least one quality—they are both disciples of discipline. Higgins, 42, has been a vegetarian since he was 20, though he eats fish. He rarely drinks anything stronger than root beer, but when he was in Poland last year as coach of the U.S. pentathlon team, he won a toasting contest in which he mixed vodka and champagne with ice cream.
While stationed in Germany in the early '60s, Higgins was on the All-Army basketball and track teams. Soon after he returned to the U.S. in 1962, he went to Los Angeles to train with Mihaly Igloi. the Hungarian taskmaster who had developed many fine runners. In 1964 he went to New York to try out for the Olympic marathon team. "It was a very nice day," he recalls with a chuckle, as if he were about to tell a very funny story. "About 95°. Buddy Edelen and I raced like hell, leading the field. I don't remember anything after 18 miles. The story goes that I sat down and someone poured water over my head, but I shook it off and started again. They had an ambulance following me. At 23 miles, I was still in second place. A guy came out of a bar and tried to hand me a beer, but I fell on him and broke his leg. I woke up in a hospital. It was the only race in my life that I didn't finish."
In 1966 he was the fastest American in the Boston Marathon behind four Japanese, and a month later he returned to New York to win the AAU marathon championship. In 1968 Higgins refused to run in the Eastern regional trials for the Olympics because it was a day of mourning for Robert Kennedy. He tried to make the team again in 1972, but finished ninth in the Trials.
Higgins began coaching in 1969—without pay—at St. Bernard Girls High School (now coed), making ends meet by becoming a Fuller Brush salesman, and later by selling sporting goods out of his car. He left St. Bernard in 1975 after opening his small store on New London's Bank Street, but he never turned it into the kind of lucrative business that the stores of Marty Liquori, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers have become. Fontaine helps run the business, but when she, Merrill and Higgins are off competing or training, the store is closed. Many of Higgins' uncovered expenses come out of the drawer in the store. Merrill gets her way paid to most competitions, but Higgins and Fontaine frequently don't. Yet, when a large life insurance company recently offered Higgins a hefty contribution, he turned it down. "I don't want Jan to have to stand around at conventions with a wineglass in her hand," he says.
Merrill met Higgins in the fall of 1973 when she ran her first 1,500-meter cross-country race in the Arboretum. She was a senior at Waterford High and had already won state championships in the half mile and the mile and had put the shot 35 feet. "All I can remember," she says, "is that he had this turtle in his hands and kept saying, 'Look what I found! A big turtle!' " Merrill finished second behind Fontaine and asked Higgins, who was the organizer of the competition, whether she could run in more races. "It wasn't a pushy thing," she says. "He wasn't recruiting me. I started working out with him once a week."
"She was also an outstanding field hockey player," recalls her high school coach, Vivien Novicki. "She was totally dedicated, hardworking. I remember once we were coming home from a field hockey game, and we were talking about her potential in track. I remember telling her that she had Olympic potential. I'll never forget the look on her face. 'Do you really think so?' she said."
"My two oldest children had piano lessons from the time they were eight," says Mrs. Merrill, "but they didn't want to practice. So I wasn't going to put Jan through the same thing. But then when she was eight, she said one day, 'When is my turn?' She wanted to play the piano, too, and she is the only one who has kept it up. She will work hard, but she doesn't consider it work. When we drove to swim training, she would get very upset when we were getting there late, even when she was only eight years old. Mr. Higgins inherited all the discipline she got from swim training."
Jan swam competitively for the local YMCA for nine years. In her last two summers, she was swimming 10,000 meters a day. She lost 15 pounds and her weight has stayed around 110 ever since. Swimming, she feels, made her heart strong.
In January of 1974 she ran a mile in an indoor meet at Dartmouth and came in second in 4:56.9. "That encouraged me to become a runner," she says. "I felt if I could break five minutes with limited training, I could develop further." But she still ran like a swimmer; in one of her early indoor meets she stayed in the second lane the whole way. That summer she finished second in the 1,500 at the junior nationals, clocking 4:36.
Merrill's first major running success came at the 1975 Pan-American Games in Mexico City when she won the 1,500 in 4:18.3. She treasures a picture that shows her finishing the race with a big smile—a rare find indeed. Even she says, "It's the best picture that has ever been taken of me."
Merrill spent two years at a junior college—Thames Valley State Technical College—where the classroom schedules allowed her more time to prepare for the 1976 Olympics. That year, she won both the one-mile and two-mile at the AAU indoor nationals with barely time to recover in between. Merrill also won the 3,000 at the 1976 outdoor nationals and finished second in the 1,500 at the Olympic Trials.
"Just making the Olympic team was the biggest thrill of my life," she says. "I was in a daze. Montreal was so beautiful. There were a lot of girls in the rooms, but I kind of made my corner, and when it got too noisy I went into the park and napped there." At Montreal, she is best remembered for her semifinal race. With 200 meters to go, she sprinted from sixth to first place—only to be passed in the last 40 meters. But she set an American record of 4:02.6, which still stands, even while finishing fifth. As the fastest loser, she qualified for the finals. (In 1972, when the women's 1,500 became an Olympic event, no American made it into the finals.) "The next day came so quickly," says Merrill, "and it was a slow race." She came in eighth, Russia's Tatyana Kazankina winning in 4:05.5.
Since then Merrill has won the national cross-country championship twice and was seventh at the international championship last March. Last winter she set an indoor world record of 8:57.6 in the 3,000 meters. In June, she accomplished another remarkable double by winning the 1,500 and 3,000 at the AAUs. Last month at the Olympic Invitational indoor meet in Madison Square Garden, where she won the 1,500 over archrival Francie Larrieu, she received the AAU's C.C. Jackson Award as the country's outstanding female track and field athlete of 1978.
Given her performances so far this fall and winter, Merrill can only get better. In October she ran in a 10,000-meter mixed road race at Hartford, Conn. in 32:22, almost a minute faster than the American record Peg Neppel set on a track. And one afternoon last December she entered a two-mile race in the Coast Guard Academy's Pre-Indoor Relay Carnival, a sort of B race for men who had not broken 9:20. Merrill could have run in a women's mile, but Higgins opted for the men's race, because, he said, "It's good for her. There are 40 to 50 men in this race and that means confusion. It will prepare her for those chaotic places like Madison Square Garden."
Merrill started off in the lead, then dropped to seventh. "Get yourself out of the traffic, then get settled," Higgins had advised her. With 600 yards to go, he called to her, "Pick up two seconds!" Merrill sprinted ahead, finishing fourth. Her time of 9:38.9 was a half-second faster than Francie Larrieu's American and world indoor record.
In January she ran another two-mile race against nine men at the Academy, and lowered her time to 9:31.7, bending a few egos along the way. Near the finish she outsprinted two runners from Fitchburg State to come in fifth. "They don't want to talk about the race," said Fitchburg State Coach Jim Sheehan. His assistant added, "I'd die before I would ever be beaten by a woman."
Merrill's 9:31.7 will not be an American record because the AAU doesn't accept women's times in mixed races; the theory is that the women gain an unfair advantage by being pulled along by the faster men. Because the International Amateur Athletic Federation, track and field's ruling body, doesn't recognize world indoor records, there are no official marks in this category. However, because Track & Field News, which is a responsible organization, has recognized Merrill's 9:31.7, it will become a de facto world record.
But don't expect Merrill to stand around chatting about her triumphs over male or female competition. "I don't know what to say," she says. "People sometimes think I'm different because I'm an athlete. But I'm not built any bigger than anybody else. I'm just medium-like. I really don't stand out.
"Mr. Higgins is distinguished. He stands out in a crowd. He has a lot of devotion. He never gives up, and if you don't either, you will be successful. Yes, maybe I do use him as a shield, and I don't see what's wrong with that."
Higgins, after all, is part of her environment.