Renaldo Nehemiah was autographing an orange for a young fan, which was difficult because the oil in the skin made his ball-point pen skip, and if he pressed too hard, the peel would tear. It seemed silly, too, because autographs are for saving, and the observer's imagination jumped ahead to the furry, green, odiferous lump that the orange would be after six months atop the fan's dresser in Santa Monica.
"But, Mom," he'd wail, "Skeets Nehemiah signed that orange just for me."
"Child, his name is completely overgrown," she'd say, "and if he's a good man, I know he wouldn't want you breathing germs every night from his own signature."
Nehemiah is a good man, though he was a little rushed last Friday night in the Sunkist (thus the bins of oranges in the Los Angeles Sports Arena infield) Indoor Invitational Track Meet. First he set a 50-yard high-hurdle indoor world record of 6.01 seconds, .03 better than his old one. Twenty minutes later he returned to flow through the more frequently run 60-yard highs in 6.98, the season's best time until he clocked a 6.92 in The Dallas Times Herald Invitational the next night. Small wonder he never got around to addressing the question of the decaying memento.
February 9, 1981
Nehemiah is, of course, the master of these brief bursts that are indoor hurdling. He holds the 60-yard record of 6.89, and has run 12 of the 13 fastest times at that distance, yet seldom has he looked more in control than he did last week. Twice in Los Angeles he beat strong fields to the first hurdle and then employed his perfectly grooved form, the remarkable low stretch over the barriers that makes him look, from the side, as if he could hurdle through a keyhole, to fly ever farther out of reach and finally put some steam into an indoor season that he feels has been flat so far.
"Most athletes aren't enthusiastic right now," he said while laboriously inscribing the orange. "Even last year there wasn't anyone competing with reckless abandon, except for Mary Decker." The reason then was the need to train toward a summer Olympic peak. The reason now is that no American got to Moscow because of the U.S. boycott.
"Track's only Utopia is the Olympic Games," Nehemiah went on. "That's the only time we enjoy the total absorption of the media. It was sad to miss it, and the sport as a whole seems to be still feeling it, moping around."
Last winter Nehemiah was hurt, having torn cartilage in his left ankle in a pickup basketball game. "Strangely, the boycott acted like a cushion to me then," he said. "It was a shame for all the athletes, but it helped me personally to take being injured. I knew it didn't really matter how long I needed to come back. So I turned out to have a good summer."
One cannot imagine a more opposite view than that of Evelyn Ashford. The best U.S. woman sprinter since 1977 and the world's best in 1979, Ashford, like Nehemiah, was injured in 1980, going down with a right hamstring pull last May.
While Nehemiah was soothed by the boycott's lifting of Olympic pressure, Ashford was devastated. "I remember exactly how I felt," she said. "My leg really hurt, but I thought, 'Big deal. I'm not going to the Olympics anyway.' In fact, I think that because I knew there'd be no Games for me, I had no incentive to prevent the injury. The boycott literally tore me apart."
Ashford had built a single-minded life. "Almost everything I'd done in the last few years had been for the goal of getting to the Olympics and winning some gold medals," she says. She had an outside chance at four, in the 100 and 200, and in the 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relays. "That's why I dropped out of UCLA. That's why I didn't do interviews. I just wanted to concentrate on being the best in the world. So when I found I couldn't go, I just gave up."
As Ashford warmed up for the women's 60-yard dash in which she would face the 1980 Olympic 100-meter champion, Lyudmila Kondratyeva of the Soviet Union, Ashford's coach, Pat Connolly, continued the tale. "Evelyn actually got back into training last June," she said, "but she had no motivation, no heart. She had to get away from it."
Ashford and her husband, Ray Washington, a teacher at a school for juvenile delinquents, drove across the country to visit relatives and ponder her future. "I was done, seriously," she had said. "I didn't want to face being that hurt ever again. But in the end my body itself brought me back. I just couldn't stand not doing anything."
In the fall she began anew with Connolly, working with a close-fitting weight vest and taking advantage of the dry Santa Ana winds that in November and December blew fires through Los Angeles suburbs. "She sprints with the wind at her back," said Connolly, "which helps to overcome any fear of falling forward at real speed and to keep that natural forward lean of hers, which increases the speed of her leg turnover."
A stunning technological advance that stopped some hearts at the Sunkist meet, as it had a week earlier in Albuquerque, where Ashford set an American indoor record of 6.65 in the 60, was her custom-tailored three ounces of black, filmy stretch fabric that she has substituted for the usual racing uniform of shorts and shirt and underwear. Made by Descente of Japan, it's similar—right down to its long legs—to the racing wear of speed skaters and downhill ski racers, though lighter, and its main purpose is to keep the sprinter warm, though there may be a tiny decrease in wind resistance as well. "And it's totally free," said Connolly. "No shorts riding up, nothing to tug into place, nothing blousing out in the wind."
As Ashford stood before her blocks, the garment, from a distance, gave her the appearance of a wet-suited skin diver. Kondratyeva was to her left, a gold tooth catching the light, her face more cherubic than when she won in Moscow, probably because she's put on at least 10 celebratory pounds since then. Alice Brown of the Shaklee Track Club of L.A. was next to Ashford on the right. A splendid starter, she'd won everything in sight last year after Ashford's injury.
Ashford had warmed up a lot. "She's nervous," said Connolly. "In some ways there's more pressure on her now than in the 1979 races against the East Germans. Then it was people's hopes she carried. Now it's more like people's expectations."
Brown was off well. Ashford, jittery, started terribly. But after 15 yards Ashford began to gain, reaching a speed no one else could match. Even before she caught and passed Brown, there was no question of the outcome. In flight, the suit made Ashford seem a darting silhouette. It emphasized the shape and heft of the prime sprinter's muscles in her hips and thighs and, more memorably, the lean delicacy of her calves and arms, giving a visual impression of the size of her engine and the relatively light body it propelled.
She won in 6.66, the fourth-fastest 60 ever run. Brown ran 6.77—the next night in Dallas she would do 6.62 and break Lyudmila Storozhkova's world record of 6.63—and Kondratyeva was fifth in seven seconds flat. Ashford quickly changed out of her suit, saying, "Nobody's said anything funny about it yet," and took it and her spikes to Connolly in the stands before going to face the press.
A very suspicious-looking little bottle of white powder fell out of Ashford's shoes into Connolly's palm. "Ah, Evelyn's secret," she said.
"Secret?" asked a nearby reporter.
"Want to try some?" asked Connolly with disturbing vivacity.
"I'm...I'm not sure." A wrong guess here, it seemed, might jeopardize clear coverage of the upcoming mile.
"Go on." She poured a half teaspoonful into the man's hand. It didn't have the texture of salt or sugar. By now, the interchange was drawing stares, some curious, some disapproving, some greedy.
"Taste it," said Connolly. He did. It was powdered Vitamin C.
Then Ashford was back, relaxed, saying, "I wish I could have that one to do over."
"You'll have your chances," said Connolly, and Ashford will, in meets leading up to the World Cup in Rome in September. It was in the 1979 World Cup in Montreal that she had her finest races, beating East Germany's world-record holder, Marlies G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áhr, in the 100 in an American-record 10.97 and defeating East Germany's world-record holder, Marita Koch, in the 200 with an American-record 21.83. In that one she clapped her hands at the end, becoming an indelible picture of...
"...relief," she says. "But then, in the next instant, I was afraid. There was a vacuum in front of me. 'What do I do now?' I thought. There wasn't the ecstatic reaction I expected to have. I'd done everything I wanted to do, and it was like I was saying to myself, 'Is that all there is?' "
So it seems that reward is not what brings an athlete like Ashford back, or even the pride of returning. "From now on it's one race at a time, and the only pressure on me is from me," she said.
A parallel case, sprinter James Sanford of Los Angeles, returned a hamstring pull with an impressive win in the men's 60, missing Houston McTear's world record by .03 with 6.08. (That mark, too, would fall in Dallas when Stanley Floyd of Houston ran the distance in 6.04.) After his Sunkist race, Sanford discussed his debilitating injury of last year and, as is his happy wont, added to the language. "As I looked back, I decided that you can only look back so far and then you have to look forward," he said in stately cadence. "I will go on."
Steve Scott has quietly gone on getting stronger and stronger these past three years, until now it seems there is not a miler besides Sebastian Coe or Steve Ovett who can get near him.
"Things with me are pretty bland," he said last week. "Bland but consistent." A quiet autumn of cross-country running, weight work, no travel "and no honeymoon like last year" has left the 24-year-old Scott superbly fit and confident.
Ray Flynn of Ireland, who had raced Scott almost even in a 3:54.5 mile in Johnson City, Tenn. three weeks before, expected Scott to go after Eamonn Coghlan's indoor world record of 3:52.6. "I wanted Scott to have to take the brunt of the hard work, so I could wait just behind until the last lap," said Flynn. But when rabbit Brian Theriot only did 1:57.4 for the half, Scott held back.
"If it had been 1:55, I might have gone after it," he said, "but I decided then just to try to win." That left Flynn in the lead when the rabbit died, wondering why Scott didn't pass, and Flynn ran the third quarter in 61.1, further wrecking the chance of a record.
With 400 yards to go, Scott took the lead and pulled away. For a time it appeared Coghlan had a shot at him, but he and Flynn collided on the last turn and Scott was never challenged, winning in 3:53.7, the fourth-fastest indoor time ever. Coghlan hit 3:54.3, nearly five seconds faster than he'd run in Johnson City, and Flynn got a personal best of 3:54.4.
"My third win in a row," said Scott, seeming not at all tired. "That's as many wins as I've ever had in a whole indoor season."
It was noticed that although Scott always appears calm before races, his fingernails were well chewed.
"That's the part that makes it exciting," he said. "It would be dull if I weren't nervous, wondering whether I'll be able to dig deep enough in the last quarter. I don't think I had that killer instinct a couple of years ago."
"You want to be a killer?" he was asked.
"Well, uh...on the track, yes." He smiled at his own niceness. "I'm trying not to be bland—I had a hemorrhoid last week, is that spicy enough?—but I guess I'm not really in this to be a millionaire, and I don't really care if I'm the best-known person in the world or the least-known. My objective is to do my best in the sport and for the sport. And I guess if I do that and lose, I'll still know I gave it all I had. And that's sensible, right? And bland."
However, the stamp of a world record imparts a certain piquancy to a runner, so Scott knows what he has to do. "This 3:53.7 off a tactical pace will put ideas in people's minds," he said with relish. "If they couldn't get me in a kicker's race, maybe they'll figure they'll have to take it out hard, say next week in the Mill-rose mile in New York. And I hope they do!"
Those were fighting thoughts—the kind that keep you warm and bring you back and set you apart, the real things to remember long after all the oranges have molded away.