With four laps remaining in the two-mile run last Saturday afternoon in Detroit, Doug Padilla, a senior at Brigham Young, seemed to be in a no-win situation. He had come to the NCAA indoor track and field championships hoping to upset defending mile and two-mile champion Suleiman Nyambui of Texas-El Paso in both events. But now, in the first of those races, he was caught in a trap of his own making. "I don't have a lot of speed to work with," Padilla had said. "I'm not going to blow someone away with my last-lap kick."
Thus, when Padilla burst past Nyambui and into the lead with five laps to go, it had to deflate him when the 28-year-old Tanzanian stuck on his outside shoulder, showing no sign of strain. Padilla, it seemed, had succeeded only in setting up Nyambui's own powerful finishing kick.
As the two runners entered the 19th of the race's 22 laps, Nyambui moved slightly to the outside and accelerated, drawing alongside Padilla. See you later, Doug. But Nyambui couldn't get past. Padilla, his elbows flailing, his choirboy face contorted with effort, was fighting Nyambui off with a prolonged surge. If Padilla didn't have much speed, he at least had grit.
Down the backstretch they went, side by side in a full-out sprint, then around again for another lap at the same grueling pace. Nyambui, who finished second in the 5,000 at the Moscow Olympics, couldn't believe what was happening. When Nyambui eased the pressure, Padilla would pull ahead. Instead of slingshotting by Padilla, Nyambui seemed to be pushing him along, like a gust of wind at work on a sail. When they reached the tape, Padilla still hadn't yielded, and his time of 8:26.52 gave him the victory by a mere six hundredths. He had run the last mile in 4:05; the last quarter in 57.7.
March 23, 1981
Padilla was ashen and his legs were wobbly. He tried a victory lap but couldn't make it around the 160-yard track. At the far turn he stopped and waved feebly to a group of fans, but he was having difficulty remaining upright. Too polite to turn away the lingering reporters who pressed him for such basic information as how he pronounces his name (pah-dee-yuh), yet too dizzy to talk straight, Padilla was finally whisked off to a trainer's room by a teammate. Nyambui had already left the infield of Joe Louis Arena, his hopes for an unprecedented third straight double in ruins.
But there was to be a unique double scored at the two-day meet. Carl Lewis of Houston won the 60-yard dash and the long jump, the latter victory coming on the second-longest leap (despite a woefully short runway) ever recorded indoors, 27'10". Lewis himself had set the record of 27'10¼" a month ago at the Southwest Conference meet, where he also came within .02 of tying Stanley Floyd's 60-yard world record (6.04). Lewis prefers jumping to sprints, but he ranked in the Top 10 in the world last year in both the 100 meters and the long jump. "The two are complementary," he says. "The faster I can run, the farther I can jump. It's that simple." SMU triple-jumper Keith Connor, a British Olympian, also was forced to chop two strides off his approach because of the short runway and still set a world indoor record of 56'9½". Mustang teammate Robert Weir, a hammer and discus thrower whom Connor had recruited from the staff of a large English bank, became the second person in history to throw the 35-pound weight at least 73'7", the winning distance. Before coming to the U.S. in January, Weir had never even seen a 35-pound weight. "I'm undecided about this event," he said. "But then you Americans have oddities. I still can't figure why dimes are smaller than nickels."
Unfortunately for Weir and Connor, they still remain virtually unknown in America. Weir competed in a field house in Ypsilanti, and Connor's triple-jump, plus an impressive 69'8½" shotput by SMU teammate Michael Carter—only Terry Albritton threw farther indoors as a collegian—occurred in lightly attended afternoon trials on Friday.
As usual, the race for the team title was no race at all. While UTEP Coach Ted Banks tossed out "You-can't-win-until-all-the-points-are-counted" lines, his own pre-meet dope sheet showed that, at the very least, his Miners would score in the low 50s, which would seemingly guarantee victory. Having qualified 16 athletes from nine countries, the Miners were realistic enough to bring along T shirts that read TEXAS-EL PASO 1981 NATIONAL INDOOR CHAMPIONS. The final tally gave them 76 points and their sixth team title in eight years.
The squad that placed second—and which may soon challenge UTEP—was Southern Methodist, which is coached by Ted McLaughlin, a former assistant to Banks. McLaughlin, who is perhaps the best field-event coach in the nation, is still cautious about stirring up an intrastate rivalry. Of SMU's 51 points, 19 were earned by athletes McLaughlin had originally recruited for UTEP, but he was quick to counter any suggestion of treachery. "I didn't take those people from UTEP. They came to me. On their own."
If Texas-El Paso and its spin-offs were an all-too-familiar show in Detroit, Padilla was, by contrast, intriguingly new. When the crowd heard his name and age (24), most people assumed he was another foreigner. A Mexican, maybe. After all, about a third of the individual points in the meet were scored by foreign athletes, many of whom are older than their U.S. counterparts. But Padilla is a Northern Californian whose mother is from Utah and whose father, a supervisor at the Alameda Naval Air Station, is from New Mexico.
The reason Padilla is two years behind in school is that from February 1976 to February 1978 he was in El Salvador, paying most of his own expenses and working 10 hours a day as a proselytizing Mormon missionary. "There was unrest, though not as bad as now," Padilla says. "Most people were congenial, but sometimes they slammed doors in our faces or threw rocks. A lot of times they cursed. They thought we worked for the CIA, too. They'd see us and yell, 'íLa cia! íLa cia!' That was funny, because cia in Spanish is pronounced the same as silla, the Spanish word for chair. We'd shout back, íLa mesa! íLa mesa!'—the table."
While serving as a missionary, Padilla managed only an occasional morning run, which was more fun than serious effort. Padilla had placed 13th in the two-mile at the 1974 California state high school meet and won the 1975 Northern California junior college mile title (4:10.7) but he joined the BYU team as a walk-on in 1975 after a year at Chabot College in Hayward, Calif. "Chabot and Cal. State-Hayward recruited me. That was about it," he said. After returning from his mission, Padilla improved enough to finish sixth in the NCAA 5,000 last spring and 15th in the NCAA crosscountry championships last fall. This winter, just before he ran a 3:56.6 mile in San Francisco, he defeated Nyambui for the first time, in the Sunkist two-mile at Los Angeles. "You should have seen Nyambui's face when he finished," says Padilla. "He looked like the boy caught with a hand in the cookie jar—'Oh, oh, I wasn't supposed to do that.' " Nyambui had much the same look three weeks ago when Padilla beat him again, this time for the WAC 3,000-meter championship.
In the 50 minutes between the end of the two-mile and the start of the mile, Padilla got a rubdown and a brief rest. Nyambui had been reminded by Banks that he didn't have to run the mile, because UTEP had clinched the team title. Recovered or not, required to or not, both runners lined up on the badly worn board track to race again.
This time Padilla dropped immediately into last, where he stayed for more than half the race. Nyambui kept himself in midpack through a 2:01.5 half, but by the time Luis Ostolozaga of Manhattan College carried the race into the final quarter, the UTEP junior was in second place, shoulder-sitting again. At the gun Padilla was up there, too, in third place, a few yards behind. However, as both Padilla and Nyambui flew past Ostolozaga on the backstretch, it was clear that the outcome would be different. Padilla would remain the pursuer, and Nyambui would hold on to first. The times: 4:01.85 for Nyambui, 4:01.96 for Padilla.
"I had more left in me than I thought," said Padilla. "I tried, but it was so bunched up in front of me I couldn't get by. You know, I'm really not sure I comprehend yet everything that's happened today." Padilla's confusion was understandable. Not only had he broken Nyambui's streak, but also in doing so he had become the first American to win an NCAA indoor distance crown since 1972. Between that and SMU's emergence, perhaps even UTEP's Banks found this year's championships a bit disconcerting.