Tall, bony Veronica Bell, her face powdered white with sand from the long-jump pit, tried to describe the sensation of leaping two feet farther than she ever had. "When I got to the board it felt good," said Bell, a little-known junior from Cal Poly-Pomona, who—perhaps—jumped 21'11¾" at last Friday's USA/Mobil Indoor Track & Field Championships in New York to break Martha Watson's nine-year-old American women's indoor record by a stunning seven inches. "It felt like"—here she churned her arms—"ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. After that, emotional burnout for a few minutes." And soon, maybe, another type of burnout. Because her jump was measured with something called a Lufkin tape, it's uncertain whether Bell gave the performance of her life or was given it. It was that kind of meet.
As the culmination of the best U.S. indoor track season in years—before Friday, American or world records had been equaled or broken 39 times—and as the final, most heavily weighted of 16 meets on a $100,000 Grand Prix circuit, the indoor nationals were expected to be special. In a sense, they were. They were alternately brilliant and bizarre.
For instance, did Bell really set a U.S. record? Did Evelyn Ashford break Jeanette Bolden's women's world indoor 60-yard-dash mark or not break her own world record for the event? How could hurdler Stephanie Hightower run the exact same women's world indoor record time she and Candy Young had attained at the Millrose Games two weeks earlier and not be credited with tying the record? How did a three-foot chunk of the long-jump runway vanish? And, why was Mary Decker Tabb going around armed with a pistol instead of spikes?
Bell's seemingly astonishing effort came on her first attempt at 11:30 Friday morning—so early that no more than 300 spectators were in Madison Square Garden to see it. Using less than two-thirds of the 150-foot runway, Bell, whose personal best indoors had been 19'10¼", hit what she immediately knew was a good jump. "I looked back and said to myself, 'Twenty feet, 10 inches,' " she said later. The judges measured the jump at 6.70 meters, or 21'11¾". "I went haywire," said Bell.
March 8, 1982
But perhaps something else was haywire. A Lufkin measuring tape, which is marked off in millimeters rather than in centimeters, is easily misread. The "70" that appears a couple of inches after six meters doesn't denote 6.70 meters, but rather 6.07 meters, or 19'11". The true 6.70 mark comes two feet farther out, where the tape reads "700." Bob Hersh, records chairman for The Athletics Congress, suspects the jump was actually 6.07 meters. He also points out that in violation of required procedure a referee wasn't called to the pit to verify Bell's mark until after the sand was raked. Nine months may pass before the record is approved or rejected.
Bell, whose next-best jump on Friday was 20'1¾", remained bright-eyed and sanguine. "Now I have to stick around and watch my hero jump," she said. She referred not to Larry Myricks, who taught her the "hitch" style of jumping only three months ago, but to Carl Lewis, who broke Myricks' world indoor record (27'6") in 1981 and since then has extended it to 28'1". Bell has a crush on Lewis. "He won't like you if you beat his sister Carol," warned a bystander. "Well," Bell answered, turning a bit pouty, "he took my coach's record away."
Lewis had some difficulty with some measurements, too. Using his own tape, he found the Garden runway, which had suited him fine two weeks earlier at the Millrose Games, to be several feet short. "Who would have cut it off?" asked Mill-rose Meet Director Howard Schmertz. "That can't be." But Lewis had to stand up on the banked third turn of the track in order to get in his full run-up, and this led to fouls on his first two jumps. But on his fifth leap, Lewis soared. The first time he jumped 28 feet indoors, in January's U.S. Olympic Invitational, Lewis hadn't sensed the magnitude of his leap. "This time I felt it more," he said. And this time, in contrast to the solitude in which Bell jumped, it seemed every tuxedoed meet official in the building was at the sandbox. Cameramen swarmed around Lewis. When he tried jogging down the track to stay loose, the swarm followed him. He faked left and right. The swarm faked left and right. Lewis finally began to laugh at the absurdity of it.
He even smiled when the measurement was announced: 8.55 meters, or 28'¾". He had missed his world record by a silly centimeter, while providing history with its second indoor 28-footer. Lewis, who recently received the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete of 1981, seems happy at having lost his eligibility at the University of Houston this winter because he flunked a history course. "I don't have the burden of extra team meets and multiple events," he says. "I love it!"
The more yeoman-like Chandra Cheeseborough of Tennessee State had a different outlook. "I'm helping the team, so I love it," she said. While Lewis was jumping, she'd won her trial heat of the women's 220, the fourth of nine races (three 60s, two 160s and four 220s) she would run on Friday. In the 220 heat, she led all the way in lowering her own women's world indoor 220 record from 23.27 to 23.25. In the evening's final she would again finish first, though at .21 of a second slower. "I just love the 220 so," she said, her gentle voice and manner belying the fierce, glowering presence she affects on the track. "I've always been lucky here," she said. "I only hope I can come back and do this again next year."
Hightower and Young, who had run a side-by-side world-record dead heat in the 60-yard hurdles at the Millrose, didn't enjoy good fortune in their repeat performance Friday night. "I'm not trying to make a habit of this, believe me," said Hightower, who had beaten Young to the first three hurdles before losing her edge. "The last two hurdles I looked for Candy with my peripheral vision," she said. "It was stupid." Said Young, "I don't know who won. This was closer than the Millrose."
At midday on Friday, after the 1,001st perusal of the Millrose finishing photo, Schmertz had informed Hightower that hers and Young's record was no longer 7.38 seconds, but 7.37. "I didn't know they could do that sort of thing," Hightower said later.
A full 20 minutes after Friday's race had ended, the results came over the P.A.: "And we have a winner this time..." Hightower buried her face in her hands. "...Stephanie Hightower!" Hightower looked up, smiled and then covered her face again. "...her time, only one one-hundredth off the world record, 7.38 seconds." She was let down. "If they had only left the time alone," she mumbled.
Ashford, too, nervously awaited the announcement of her time. She had defeated Bolden by a foot in the 60, catching the taller sprinter from Wilt's AC with a burst over the last 20 yards. Ashford isn't normally expressive, yet after this victory she ran swiftly and jubilantly back up the sprint runway waving both hands above her head. "I needed this," she said. In San Diego two weeks ago Ashford won the 60 in 6.48, .12 of a second faster than Bolden's world record, but a mark Ashford may lose because the race was so fouled up. Half the field stopped right after the starting gun, thinking there had been a false start, and the meet officials subsequently said that the timing system had malfunctioned. "I didn't false start," said Ashford, still incensed. "The timer was fine. It was a world record." With ratification of Ashford's mark still pending, Bolden's record remained the accepted one on Friday night.
Ashford didn't think she'd established a record in Friday's race. "Not unless they timed me going back up the track," she said. But her time turned out to be 6.54—faster, at least, than Bolden's best. "Ya-hoo!" screamed Ashford, losing all restraint and kicking into a combination of the twist and the watusi. "I did it! I did it!" She was elated because this would be her final race until 1983. "I need a rest," she said. "I'll start training in August for next year. This is the right way to finish."
In the absence of Decker Tabb, who was limited to starting-pistol duty by a sore ankle, Arizona senior Joan Hansen won the women's two-mile with a strong finish of her own. Taking the lead with 2½ laps to go and never yielding it, she hit the tape in 9:37.03, five yards ahead of Brenda Webb and Margaret Groos and 1.07 under Francie Larrieu's women's world indoor record. "I'm not used to being in the front like that," Hansen said. "Always a bridesmaid...not anymore." Hansen, who began running only three years ago, comes from an athletic family. Her older brother, John, was once an internationally ranked backstroker, and her identical twin, Joy, was eighth in last year's women's world modern pentathlon championships. "I'd trade this for a national title in swimming," said Joan, herself a former competitive distance freestyler. "Swimming's my real love."
All that was left was for Cheeseborough to run the anchor leg on Tennessee State's victorious sprint-medley team and give the Tigerbelles the women's team title over Wilt's AC. "I didn't think today would ever end," said Cheeseborough. "But now I'm ready to party. I'm ready for anything." Last Friday, that's what everyone else needed to be.