As time goes by, 1979 may well be remembered as a vintage year for the Penn Relays. Not because Villanova acquired most of the major relay titles in the 85th edition of that venerable meet, last week in Philadelphia. That was predictable, if impressive. It was the baton-carrying heroics of Renaldo Nehemiah, heretofore known primarily as the world's best hurdler, that provided the special bouquet.
The 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Maryland is ranked No. 1 as a hurdler, having broken seven indoor records this past season. Then, three weeks ago at the Bruce Jenner Classic in San Jose, Calif., he also broke Alejandro Casa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as' two-year-old world record of 13.21 in the 110 meter hurdles with a clocking of 13.16. But at Penn last week it was Nehemiah's sprinting, more than his hurdling, that saved the meet from being one of those crowded gatherings that no one remembers very long after the final baton exchange.
The fans who endured the sporadic rain and clammy chill were rewarded with the kind of performances that raise goose bumps, not only when Nehemiah anchored Maryland to a long-sought victory in the shuttle hurdle relay (the Terps' first since 1970), but on both other occasions when he carried a baton.
Nehemiah knocked over three hurdles in his leg of the shuttle race, a 480-yard, four-leg event contested on the AstroTurf infield, which had been too rain-soaked and slippery to allow trial heats on Friday. In contrast to his flawed, if winning, effort on the floor of the ancient stadium, when the action moved onto the Pro-Turf track at Franklin Field, Nehemiah was the epitome of running elegance and power.
In the 4 x 200-meter relay final on Saturday, Nehemiah got the baton about 15 meters behind LSU's Orlando McDaniel, an obviously hopeless position. But with his marvelously smooth acceleration, Nehemiah reeled in McDaniel with inexorable ease. He caught the Tiger runner while still 50 meters from the tape and won the race by two meters with an unofficial clocking of 19.4 for the leg. If Maryland's time on the wet track was an unspectacular 1:23.6 (the meet record is 1:21.4), Nehemiah had been spectacular enough by himself.
Said Maryland Coach Frank Costello, "Did I think that Renaldo could make up the distance on that kid? No. But perhaps I should have known better. You never can count him out. He strikes like a shark."
In the 4 x 400-meter relay, Renaldo struck again. The Terrapins were 20 meters behind favored Villanova and 10 behind Tennessee when he was handed the baton. No one could have blamed the youngster for settling for third in view of his previous labors, which had been tiring. But with his brilliant acceleration, Nehemiah ran down Villanova's highly regarded Tim Dale and Tennessee's flying Antone Blair to win by three meters. His brilliant 44.3 anchor leg gave Maryland a 3:07.2 clocking. Blair's 45.9 took Tennessee to second in 3:07.6.
While Nehemiah was demonstrating his speed, strength and competitive fire, a pair of 17-year-old high school seniors were giving indications that perhaps they too will amaze future Penn Relays fans. Both boys reside in Philadelphia and they are certainly among the best high school track athletes in the nation.
Carlton Young is an angular, 5'11", 155-pound sprinter from Central High School, who has a 3.8 grade point average and an ambition to become a doctor. Rodney Wilson is a 6'1", 169-pound hurdler from John Bartram High, whom Track and Field News ranked just above Young as the No. 1 prep athlete in the U.S. last winter.
That was after Wilson, who holds the state high school record of 13.4 in the 120-yard hurdles, swept through a remarkable indoor season in which he broke seven hurdle records and tied another. Chief among those quality performances were a 7.10 mark for the 60-yard highs and, hand-timed, a 6.9 effort for the same event, which equals Nehemiah's best as a prep athlete at Scotch Plains (N.J.) High two years before. Wilson has not been defeated by a high school opponent for the past year and a half, and his consistency can be credited to hard work and cool confidence.
"I try to work out every day as much as I can," Wilson says of his training on Bartram's rustic cinder track. "I always try to get in two to three hours a day. Even if the weather is bad, I lift weights in the basement or do stretching exercises in my room. I had two chairs set up in the basement. I hurdled them, practicing my technique, first concentrating on getting my trail leg, then my lead leg, over them. When I'm working by myself, I have to be my own coach. Outdoors, that old cinder track gets a lot of miles out of me. I try to analyze everything I'm doing wrong."
Wilson, who is being recruited by more than 200 colleges, adds, "Nehemiah is a challenge to me now. He sets the goals for me. Everything he does—that's my goal, too."
Had he no athletic ability, Carlton Young still would be one of the most interesting and busiest youngsters at his school, whose academic curriculum draws students from the entire Philadelphia area. Young ranks 36th in his class of 399, and his courses include calculus, biochemistry and advanced physics, each of which he hopes will advance him toward his career in medicine. Toward that end, Young also works part-time at Pennsylvania Hospital under a program sponsored by the American Foundation for Negro Affairs.
"The kid is just dynamite," says Dr. Harvey Lerner, a surgeon who is one of Young's supervisors at the hospital. "He's unusual in that he's unassuming, almost humble. Most athletes I've known are the big-chested, pound-on-the-desk kind of people. Not this kid. He never asks for anything special." Said Dr. Howard Zaren, another supervisor, "You mean he's the top high school sprinter in the country? I didn't know that. He's been too modest to tell me about it."
Young has run 100 yards in 9.4 and has a 20.9 time for the 220. Last summer, in one of his infrequent races at 100 meters, Young ran 10.39.
Neither Young nor Wilson had a suitable showcase for his talent at Penn, which offered no individual sprint or hurdle events for the meet's huge field of prep entrants. In addition, each got a bad break that, in Wilson's case, was heartbreaking. Ill fortune first struck Central on Friday in a trial heat of the 400-meter relay. At 12:15 p.m., when the heats in that event began, the sky was overcast and threatening. Thirty minutes later, just as Young and his teammates took to the track, a deluge arrived. Its timing was terrible. Young anchored Central to a win in its race, but the time of 43.1 was not good enough to make Saturday's championship final. Before the rains came, good baton passes and Wilson's impressive anchor leg had enabled Bartram to win the opening heat in 41.8, which qualified for the finals.
On Saturday, in a prep preview of Nehemiah's comeback performances in the college-division races, Young won the consolation race for Central with a dazzling exhibition. Taking the baton in fourth place, and more than five meters behind the leader, Young raced past everyone to win by a meter as the timers caught Central in 42.4.
In the championship race, Bartram went into the last exchange in a dead heat with Calabar, a high school team from Kingston, Jamaica. But Wilson erred in starting to run too late, and Brian Burns, the team's top quarter-miler, ran up on him. The poor pass dropped Bartram to fourth.
Young's finest performance of the day was one of the more spectacular runs by any athlete of any age in the week-long competition. It came in the qualifying heats of the 1,600-meter relay, when Young moved his team from 20 meters back in third place to an eight-meter lead before handing the stick to anchorman Raymond Oglesby. Young was timed in a superb 46.1 as Central won the race in a Philadelphia public high school record time of 3:14.4. Bartram was second in 3:15.2, as Wilson ran a 48.4 second leg. In the final, however, poor passes caused Central to finish third in 3:16.1, even though Young contributed a 47.2 leg that again was the best in the field.
Central's disappointment, however, could hardly match that of Bartram in the same race. Leading on the gun lap, thanks to Wilson's 47.9 leg and a 47.5 run by Burns, the Braves were running at a 3:13 pace when anchorman Danny Scott collided with Dennis Wallace of Clarendon, another Kingston entry. While his teammates watched in shock, Scott crashed to the ground before he had run 120 meters. And while some observers claimed the Clarendon runner had cut in on Scott illegally, no penalty was called, and Bartram finished seventh in 3:26.
"We were capable of winning both relays," said Bartram Coach Ron Corson, "but even with the 3:26, we did better than a lot of schools that didn't fall down."
So did Villanova, but not quite as well as the Wildcats had expected. Last year Jumbo Elliott's squad won five major relay titles and this year undoubtedly entertained the thought that winning five again was not impossible. They got off to a good start on Friday when they won their 14th consecutive distance medley relay title in 9:29.9 even though—for the first two legs—they did not get anywhere near the lead. On the third leg, Don Paige moved from fifth place to first, but then anchorman Sydney Maree of South Africa was passed by Thorn Hunt of Arizona and he had to kick strongly to save the day for Villanova, winning by seven meters. On Saturday, Maree anchored the 4 x 1,500-meter relay, which gave the Wildcats a national collegiate record of 14:59.4. Paige ran anchor on both the sprint medley relay, which Villanova took in 3:16.5, and the 4 x 800-meter relay (7:20.3). But Nehemiah and Tennessee's Blair blocked the move toward five titles, with Renaldo's stunning 400-meter lap highlighting the final relay.
But shed no tears for Elliott, who has long understood that talent is a commodity continually replenished. There is a good chance that next year's Wildcat roster will include both Young, who has already signed a letter of intent with suburban Villanova, and Wilson, who has said he, too, would like to stay close to home.