The Renaldo Nehemiah Show played Champaign, Ill. last week. To some it was the NCAA Track and Field Championships, but these days Nehemiah is track and field. Already this year the Maryland sophomore had established four indoor high-hurdles records and had twice lowered the outdoor mark, the second time to 13 seconds flat. Yet Nehemiah continues to top his own act. On Friday, after still another breathtaking race, he took his accustomed spot atop the victory stand and meet announcer Frank Zarnowski informed the madly cheering crowd, "Although it was wind-aided, which will negate it for world-record purposes, you have seen the fastest hurdle race run in the history of track—12.91 seconds."
Wind or no wind, no human had ever before been electrically timed in the 110-meter high hurdles in less than 13 seconds. As marvelous as Skeets Nehemiah's performance was, before the five-day meet was over he found himself sharing center stage. On Saturday afternoon, the final day of the championships, Villanova junior Don Paige showed why he is being hailed as America's miler of the future by achieving a brilliant double. He took the 1,500 in 3:39.2, then came back only 35 minutes later to win the 800 in 1:46.18, a personal best. That double hadn't been accomplished in the NCAAs since another Villanova runner, Ron Delany, did it in 1958, the year Paige was two years old.
The heroics of Nehemiah and Paige helped point out that these are the NCAA championships, plural. There is a team title, but the meet also awards national titles to collegians in 19 events. This year it was the individual competitions that far outshone the team battle. (By convenient coincidence the program listed the winner in each event in each of the 57 previous years of the competition, but omitted the team winners.)
For the record, the University of Texas at El Paso won its second team title in the past five years. UTEP scored 64 points, 16 more than runner-up Villanova, having assured itself of victory by rolling up 50 points in four of the six Friday finals, including 10 unexpected first-place points from Jerome Deal, who won the 100-meter dash in 10.19. As Miners go, Deal has two peculiarities. He is an American, and he has an omega, indicative of a fraternity, branded on his left shoulder.
Villanova took second place on the strength of four first-place finishes on Saturday: Paige's double, Nate Cooper's triple jump of 56'1¼", which made him America's fourth-best triple jumper in history, and, in the next-to-last event, a meet-record 13:20.63 in the 5,000 by Sydney Maree.
Paige's victory in the 1,500 evoked memories of the Villanova milers who have made that event a Wildcat preserve for more than two decades. They include Delany, Dave Patrick, Marty Liquori and Eamonn Coghlan, who among them won 10 NCAA titles. Despite the Villanova dynasty, the runner Paige is most often compared to is former mile and 1,500-meter world-record holder Jim Ryun of Kansas. On the track the six-foot, 150-pound Paige closely resembles Ryun in everything from posture to floating gait to the way his head waggles just as he starts his powerful kick. The physical resemblance is just as strong. Paige even wears his hair in the Ryun manner.
Off the track, differences are apparent. Ryun was a serious, puritanical sort, often unsure of himself and close-mouthed except in the company of friends; Paige, a Dean's List student in finance, is confident and outgoing. Moments after he won his 800-meter semifinal last Friday, he was up in the stands drinking beer with friends.
"I've been compared to Ryun since I was a senior at Baldwinsville [N.Y.] High," Paige says. "He was one of my idols in those days. When I was being recruited for college, my choice came down to Kansas, Ryun's school, or Villanova. I still think of Ryun as the greatest miler ever. It's ridiculous to compare us in ability. I'm nowhere near his level. Ryun ran 3:55.3 in high school. I'm 22 and I still haven't run that fast."
To date, Paige's fastest mile time is 3:56.26, which he ran a month ago in Philadelphia. That race was particularly noteworthy because Paige beat a field that included Coghlan, Maree, Suleiman Nyambui and Wilson Waigwa. "I'm still four seconds away from 3:52, which is what the best milers run," Paige, who had concentrated on the 800 until this year, points out. "At this level those four seconds are a big jump. That's a step into world class."
Most observers feel he will take that step soon. "Paige has got everything," says Liquori, who was in Champaign as a TV commentator. "Most important, he has speed. To run with today's world-class milers you have to be able to do a half mile in 1:46. Don can. I could never break 1:48. You can build a runner's strength for longer distances, but you can't make him faster. And Don has great explosion. He can blow by you and open a 10-yard lead before you know what's happening, just like Ryun could."
Liquori's appraisal proved prophetic on Saturday. Paige won both his races by blowing past most of his competition in the last 100 meters. On each occasion, he brought the crowd to its feet whooping in delight. He showed his speed not only in his 800-meter time but also by sprinting the final 400 of the 1,500 in 53.6.
Paige won't decide until next year whether to aim his training at the Olympic 800 or 1,500, and when he does he will be following the advice of Jumbo Elliott, who has coached track at Villanova for 45 years. "You have to have faith in your coach, and I have very strong faith in Jumbo," Paige says. "He always says, 'Let me do the thinking. You do the running.' If he told me I could win the marathon in Moscow, I'd run the marathon."
In contrast, Nehemiah has become his own best coach in the hurdles, which he treats as an exercise in aerodynamics. He proved his skill in this science last Friday by making minor adjustments in his arm movements to compensate for the trailing wind, and then speeding to victory. Nehemiah's command of his event has drawn heavy attention from the media, worldwide. This spring, for example, he has had interview requests from television networks in Italy, France and West Germany. Usually he is very obliging. Recently, however, he denied a request from an American television network that wanted to film his technique in detail and break it down for analysis. "My style is a personal thing," Nehemiah says. "That film would be too valuable. Other hurdlers could study it and learn some of the techniques I've discovered to make me faster."
The NCAA high hurdles was being touted as a showdown between Nehemiah and UCLA's Greg Foster, who beat him in the championship meet last year. But in reality Nehemiah has honed himself so fine over the intervening 12 months that his only competition is the record book. His 12.91 in Champaign was .64 of a second faster than the clocking of his closest competitor, Dan Oliver of Ohio State, who was eight meters behind at the finish. Unfortunately the wind at Nehemiah's back gusted to 7.7 mph just as he reached top speed. That's about 3 mph faster than what is allowable.
The truth is that the wind may have been a hindrance to Nehemiah rather than a help. Shortly before his race he said, "There's nothing I fear more than a tail wind. It can make you overstride in between the hurdles so that you get too close to them. I have to run with more caution." After the race Maryland Coach Frank Costello said, "Considering the time, you may not believe this, but that wasn't a good race for Skeets. He got too close on the final three hurdles and had to hold back." Confirming that observation, Nehemiah came by at that moment and muttered to his coach with a shake of his head, "Those last three." Then he pushed his hands out in front of him, indicating that he had had to brake himself. Asked if the wind had slowed him up, he replied, "Definitely."
The wind also played havoc with Foster's race. Despite one of his best starts ever, he was forced to play catch-up right from the start. The combination of the tail wind and the lengthening stride of his 6'3" frame as he tried to overtake Nehemiah got him too close to the hurdles. He hit the third barrier, then annihilated the sixth, shattering the crossbar with his lead foot. The seventh hurdle was upon the UCLA junior before he had a chance to get airborne again, so he simply steamrollered it. Mercifully, he put the hurdles out of their misery at that point by stopping short of the eighth.
Nehemiah said he has geared all his training toward the AAU championships—which will be held next week in Walnut, Calif.—and expected his best performance there. Is it possible that he can top his act again? No doubt about it, said Costello. Then, after a pause, he added, "I can't even tell you how fast he's capable of. It seems to be as fast as he wants. Before he's finished running, Renaldo Nehemiah will do to the hurdles what Bob Beamon did to the long jump."