A Matched Pair And A Matchless Miler

Hurdlers Candy Young and Stephanie Hightower and the magnificent Mary Decker Tabb starred at the Millrose Games
February 22, 1982

Early in last Friday's Wanamaker Millrose Games, America's two best female hurdlers were racing down the middle of the Madison Square Garden sprint runway, side by side, trying to lower their shared 60-yard women's world indoor record of 7.47. On the left, leading with her left leg, was 23-year-old Stephanie Hightower, the 1981 U.S. outdoor women's champion. On the right, leading with her right leg, was Candy Young, a sophomore at New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University. Young had started poorly, but by mid-race the two hurdlers were clearing the 33-inch-high barriers in unison, as if joined at the hip: outside legs rising first, bodies bending forward at the waist, inside legs being pulled through, outside legs touching down. They looked like partners in a three-legged race.

Just before the finish line, Young dipped her head and lunged forward. "I felt I was slightly ahead coming off that last hurdle," she said moments later, as judges puzzled over the photo of the finish. "I'm sure I won." But Hightower, too, claimed the victory. The leaner and more sinewy of the two, she had twisted her torso at the finish and caught the tape with her right shoulder. "I'm the one who got the rope burn," she said. Adding to the drama was one fact made clear by the photo: Whoever had won had also finished in 7.38, a world record by .09.

This was to be a night filled with records—and close calls. Half an hour after the famed Wanamaker Mile, runners and reporters were still debating about whether Tom Byers or Steve Scott had actually won (Scott had, in 3:55.37). While the judges were reading the women's hurdle picture, Renaldo Nehemiah ran the second-fastest 60-yard hurdle race ever (6.84), missing his own world best by .02, and Tennessee State sprinter Chandra Cheeseborough followed that with a 6.61 in the women's 60-yard dash, a mere hundredth off the world mark of Jeanette Bolden, whom Cheeseborough beat at Madison Square Garden by .03.

By the time the evening was over, the 75th Millrose Games had seen 14 meet, one American and two world records fall. And high jumper Dwight Stones and pole vaulter Billy Olson had lost their events only when they failed to clear world-record heights of 7'8" and 18'9½", respectively. (Milton Goode, last year's junior college champion, won the high jump at 7'7" on the basis of fewer misses, while Earl Bell won the pole vault at 18'6½".) "Your damn Millrose Games," Stones told meet director Howard Schmertz. "I clear 7'7" and finish second."

Oddly, for all the meet's excitement, neither Hightower nor Young had come to it with much enthusiasm. Hightower had broken her own American women's indoor 60-meter hurdle record a week earlier in Louisville and had been emotionally depleted by that performance. Young, on the other hand, recently had been through a personal tragedy. Her best friend's sister had been stabbed to death during a lovers' quarrel in East Orange, N.J. on Wednesday night. "When I heard, I just wanted to go home to my parents," said Young. "I lost all desire to run." But the friend—Martha Barnwell, a sophomore sprinter at Fairleigh Dickinson—persuaded Young to come to the meet. "She said, 'Run for me, if not for yourself,' " Young related. "Still, tonight my heart and my thoughts were elsewhere."

She was briefly cheered by the news that she had been awarded the victory over Hightower, her rival for the last three years. "We're a lot like Nehemiah and Greg Foster," said Young, "except that we're still talking to each other." Both hurdlers were soon muttering to themselves, however, when the judges changed their minds and declared the race a world-record dead heat. "I nipped her at the end. I know it," said Hightower, who vowed she'd take sole possession of the record at next week's national indoor championships in New York City. Young, with an ice pack on her throbbing left quadriceps, was more glum than she had been all evening. "Sharing it just isn't the same," she said.

Mary Decker Tabb, in contrast, was envious as she watched the evening's second photo finish, in the men's mile. She thought about how invigorating it would be to have someone challenge her. "Then I really would be competing," she said. "Now I'm just running against myself." In her four previous races this season—all victories, with women's world indoor records for the mile and 3,000 meters—she'd broken away from the field in the first 50 yards. In her closest race, a 1,500 in New Jersey's Byrne Meadowland Arena, she'd won by 50 yards.

Decker Tabb's natural talent best explains her success, though this year she also has been competing with a lower percentage of body fat than ever before and probably has benefited from both her marriage to easygoing marathoner Ron Tabb and the 17-month break she took after the 1980 season because of injuries. She's running faster than she did in 1980, her best previous year, when she broke the women's world indoor 1,500 record at the Millrose as well as two other world and five American marks. "I was winning by such large margins that people began saying I was taking steroids," she said, giggling. "Can you believe that?" Then, looking down at her chest with a certain dismay, she added, "I certainly wasn't putting on inches in the obvious places."

This year's women's mile was being called the Double Decker because in it Decker Tabb hoped to break not only her three-week-old women's world indoor mile record of 4:24.6 but, en route, also her world indoor 1,500 mark of 4:00.8. "We'll time Mary at any distance she wants," said Schmertz, aware that Decker Tabb was one reason his meet had sold out five weeks in advance—a 15th meet record.

Decker Tabb wasted no time separating herself from the other milers, shedding all but one of them in her first lap of the track. Two-time Olympian Jan Merrill, however, was just a stride behind Decker Tabb and seemed determined to stick with her, if only to discover what such an experience is like. Poor Merrill. For two of the race's 11 laps, while the seven other runners fell 20 yards behind, §he stayed within 10 feet of Decker Tabb. After three laps, she was 15 feet back. After four, she trailed by nearly 15 yards. One lap after that, consumed by her effort, Merrill was in ninth place. Dead last. Such is the consequence of running with Decker Tabb.

The 18,293 Garden fans reacted to the race with steady, shrill whistles for the first three laps, then moved through a clapping phase into a full, throaty roar. Ron Tabb, a short man with flashing blue eyes and a trim brown mustache, was in the infield in jeans and a leather jacket yelling, "High!" or "Low!" to his wife as she passed. "I was telling her how her splits compared to the pace she wanted," he explained. "You're not allowed to give the times themselves." But because of the noise, Decker Tabb had some difficulty hearing even the splits called out by the P.A. announcer. "My pace seemed to be pretty even, and that's what I wanted," she said.

As Decker Tabb came into the final two laps, the crowd was standing and those in the infield were waving her along with broad windmill gestures. Her time for three-quarters of a mile had been 3:15.2, putting her within striking distance of a 1,500 record and a mile time in the high four-teens. But Decker Tabb didn't have enough strength left to accelerate over the final 440 yards, and she passed 1,500 meters in 4:03.6. She hit the tape in 4:21.47, almost 12 seconds ahead of Leann Warren of the University of Oregon, easily setting a world mile mark off splits of 64.2, 64.7, 66.3 and 66.3. That's even pace.

"I'm excited, but I really wanted to get under 4:20," she said, looking very dark-eyed from too heavy an application of mascara. "The crowd here is so good to me," she continued. "It seems that I start to hear them when I begin slowing down. But a lot of times I can't really tell when I'm slowing down." Not enough practice, perhaps.

While Decker Tabb was describing her race, which would win her the meet's Outstanding Athlete Award, the men's 5,000-meter run began. The favorites in it were indoor 5,000 world-record holder Suleiman Nyambui of UTEP and Tanzania and Alberto Salazar, the world-record holder in the marathon and the American record holder in the indoor 5,000. The dark horse appeared to be 25-year-old Doug Padilla, a fifth-year senior at Brigham Young. Padilla, last year's NCAA indoor two-mile champion, is an over-aged student only because he devoted two of his regular college years to Mormon missionary work in El Salvador. He had already beaten both Nyambui and Salazar in indoor races this season, and a week before the Millrose he had won a mile, in 3:56.3, over a strong field at the Los Angeles Times meet. Yet Salazar, whose loss to Padilla had been at two miles at Portland in late January, was still writing him off. "I think the race [about 3.1 miles] is too long for him," said Salazar. "He tends to fall asleep for a couple of laps in there."

Salazar himself wanted to run as well as he had in January's U.S. Olympic Invitational 5,000 in New Jersey; in that race he would have broken Nyambui's world record had he not been jostled to the track in the early going. Right after that race, Alberto and his father, José, happened to see Schmertz. "If you want my son to run in your meet, you'd better set that track up the night before so he can practice on it," said José Salazar.

"Dad, that wasn't why I fell," whispered Alberto. "Besides, setting up the track for an extra night in Madison Square Garden costs like $90,000 or something."

"Still, he should do it," maintained José.

Salazar took the lead from Padilla three laps into the 34-lap race and held it until only six laps were left. "It was a pity," one spectator would say later. "Alberto did all the work." Padilla, whose strategy had been to "stay with Alberto," did just that until 5½ laps remained, at which point Nick Rose of Great Britain slipped inside him, next to the curb. "I wanted to make my move with two laps to go, but when Nick forced me wide, I had to take the lead then," said Padilla. "I was running scared."

Nyambui was never a factor, and Salazar, who carried the race through the first mile in 4:18.8 and the second mile in 8:36.0, eventually faded to fourth. "No excuses," he said. "I just wasn't strong enough." Having passed the three-mile mark in 12:56.9, Padilla kicked and pulled away from his closest pursuers, Rose and another Briton, Geoff Smith. He reached the finish in 13:20.55, seven yards ahead of Rose and 2.05 under Salazar's U.S. indoor record, and then collapsed from fatigue.

Salazar came over to help him. "Thank you for the race," said Padilla, who is exceptionally polite and humble. He had run a personal best by 13 seconds, missing Nyambui's world record by only .15 of a second, and couldn't believe what he had accomplished. "I had all kinds of doubts. I wasn't sure I'd be able to run the whole race," he said a few minutes afterward, still slightly wobbly. "It's kind of hard to put myself in a class with these guys."

Padilla tilted his head to the right and started hitting above his right ear with his palm, like a swimmer clearing out water. "This night has been like a dream," he said, and slapped the side of his head again. "Just like a dream," he repeated. "My head is buzzing."

PHOTOYoung (left) and Hightower dueled stride-for-stride en route to a dead-heat record. TWO PHOTOSDecker Tabb is lonely on the track but not off it, now that she is married to marathoner Ron. PHOTOPadilla set a U.S. 5,000 mark of 13:20.55. PHOTOJames Robinson won the 800 in 1:47.51, an American record for an 11-lap track. PHOTOBell outlasted Olson, hanging on to win with a Millrose Games-record vault of 18'6". PHOTOGoode bent over backward for a personal best, which he needed to win the high jump.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)