Sprinters can be full of surprises. For example, before the 60-yard-dash final at last Saturday's NCAA indoor track and field championships, Georgia sophomore Herschel Walker, whose legs are so heavily slabbed with muscle that he must walk in a rigid swagger, reached down, grabbed his left foot and gracefully lifted it clear to the peak of his forehead. And nothing snapped or tore. Then Walker crouched into his starting blocks to race Houston sophomore Stanley Floyd, a man of similar if scaled-down physique. Certainly, it seemed, these were the two runners to watch. Floyd, the world-record holder in the 60, hadn't lost an indoor race all year, and earlier on Saturday he and Walker had turned in the best qualifying times: 6.13 for Floyd, 6.14 for Walker, a personal best.
But in the lane between them was a lithesome figure, sophomore Rod Richardson of Texas A&M, who had qualified third-fastest. At the gun it was Richardson who jumped out to a one-yard lead. "The best start of my life," said Richardson, who had decided to "try moving my butt back a little" in the starting blocks. To the shock of 14,107 fans in the Silverdome, Floyd was unable to gain on him, and Walker kept losing ground. "I was kind of expecting to see Stanley fly by me, myself," said Richardson later. Floyd never did. No one did. Well before the finish line, Richardson gave the No. 1 sign, and he was still holding his index finger aloft as he crashed into the padded wall at the end of the runway. "That finger thing might have cost me a few hundredths at the end," Richarson said, acutely aware that his time of 6.07, while a meet record, had missed Floyd's world mark by a mere .03. "I just had to showboat a little," he said. "I had to let people know who I am."
Richardson, as it turned out, wasn't the only unfamiliar winner. Just six of 15 individual champions returned from the 1981 meet, and two of those failed to repeat. The most notable exception was 29-year-old Texas-El Paso senior Suleiman Nyambui of Tanzania, whose victories in the mile and two-mile gave him an astounding 12 career NCAA titles—no one else has more than eight—and his third such indoor double in four years.
Otherwise, there was a different look to the championships, including a new 10-laps-to-the-mile track and, after 17 years in downtown Detroit, a new site some 35 miles away in Pontiac, Mich. Even the traditional Texas-El Paso team victory, the Miners' sixth in eight years, wasn't quite the same: UTEP won the title this year without Coach Ted Banks, who had guided the school to 16 NCAA track and cross-country championships out of a possible 24 since 1974. Banks resigned last month in the face of cuts in the track budget and took a promotional job with Converse. "It's like replacing John Wooden," said interim Coach John Wedel, Banks's former assistant, who nevertheless managed to get 67 points out of his team (runner-up Arkansas scored 30). "Coach Banks still with us in the mind," said Nyambui. "He still coach us. He still love us."
While Nyambui was warming up for the mile, his first race, Richardson was enjoying his new fame, signing autographs—"Rocket Rod, 6.07"—at track-side. "I want to take it while it's here," he said softly. Richardson is an articulate young man, an aspiring banker who has seen extremes of success and adversity. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was one, and he was reared by his grandmother in Shreveport, La. A 24'4" long jumper as a sophomore in high school, he had to give up that event because of the serious muscle pulls it caused him. As a senior tailback, he was named to an All-South high school football team that included Walker. "But I got beat up playing in high school," the 5'9", 165-pound Richardson says. "By the time I got to college, my body couldn't take football anymore." He missed last year's NCAA indoor meet because of a quadricep pull, and after he won last month's Southwest Conference 60-yard title, "all I heard was that it was a fluke," he says. "Perhaps I have now proved otherwise." To Richardson's dismay, a meet official soon shooed the Rocket's admirers back into the stands for the start of the mile. "Well, I'm only a sophomore," said Richardson. "Maybe I'll be back for more."
Nyambui was pleased when the mile went out slowly. "I was hoping for rest," he said later. Ross Donoghue, a Villanova junior, took the race through the half in 2:05.5, with the Tanzanian right behind him, and through three-quarters in 3:03.0. As the gun lap began, Nyambui moved up high on the track and tried to shoot past Donoghue. Donoghue wouldn't yield. Down the backstretch they dueled, with Nyambui never quite pulling even. Finally, off the last turn, Nyambui surged forward, inexorably overhauling Donoghue in the last 15 yards, finishing in 4:00.65 to Donoghue's 4:00.74. "The two-mile will be easier," Nyambui said with a wide grin. His mile victory had made him the first four-time winner of an event in the history of the indoor championships.
Until the meet in Pontiac, Nyambui's final collegiate indoor season had been disappointing. He had lost more often than he had won, principally because he came into the season out of shape. An Achilles' injury limited his training during November and December to an hour of swimming each day. "I would go at 6 a.m. to the university pool or to a club, where I would pay my cents for the pool privilege," he says. "It is a harder sport than to run." To buoy his spirits, he expanded his work with children. Formerly a primary school teacher in his hometown of Mwanza, he frequently speaks and gives sports clinics these days at schools in the El Paso area. "Kids, they are tomorrow," he says. "I love them. I encourage them in sports, because they are the only future."
Nyambui's selfless encouragement extends to his teammates as well. Four weeks ago, for instance, in the championship mile at the WAC meet in Pocatello, Idaho, he took it upon himself to pace a UTEP freshman from Kenya who was trying to meet the NCAA qualifying standard in the mile. It cost Nyambui a conference title as Ibrahim Hussein of New Mexico blew by Nyambui and his countryman at the tape. "Never measure Suleiman by a number of track championships," says Wedel. "As a person he is much more."
On his way to the stands to rest for the two-mile, Nyambui ran into an old friend, Don Paige, now an assistant track coach at Villanova (the Wildcats would finish third in the team championships with 28 points) as well as one of the world's best middle-distance runners. Nyambui greeted Paige with one of his deep, wide-mouthed laughs and said, "You train your kids very nicely, Don," and the occasional rivals shoved each other playfully.
The pushing and elbowing going on between Indiana sophomore Sunder Nix and Houston freshman Anthony Ketchum, on the other hand, was serious. They were battling in the second of two sections of the 440 final, trying to beat one another and also the 48.09 run by Bert Cameron of UTEP in the first section. Ketchum took the lead at the start and held it to the end, but the duel was so fierce that he and Nix literally locked elbows in the final stretch, causing Ketchum to fall flat on his face at the tape. "It's not a bad way to finish, if you win," he said. His time of 47.47 wasn't bad, either.
Ketchum was one of the most heavily recruited high school athletes in the nation last year, when he ran a 45.5 400 and made the U.S. World Cup team in the 4 x 100 relay. Houston offered him both football and track scholarships—he was an alternate at wide receiver in the North-South high school all-star game as a senior—but he decided to eschew football until after the 1984 Olympics, by which time he hopes to be larger than his present 5'7" and 148 pounds. Winning a national title wasn't Ketchum's only thrill last week; he also received a plaque commemorating March 10, 1982 as "Anthony Ketchum Day" in the town of Needville, Texas, where he grew up. "Needville isn't very big," he said. "It has maybe 1,024 people," 11 of them being Ketchum's brothers and sisters. "Anyway," he said, "I thought the award was very touching."
Nyambui had had nearly 90 minutes' rest for the two-mile, which was more than adequate. He sprinted away from Auburn's Chris Fox on the final lap to win by nearly four seconds, in 8:38.91. He then slipped into an orange T shirt that paid dual homage to Banks. On the front it read TEXAS-EL PASO NATIONAL CHAMPIONS, on the back DON'T BE A XENOPHOBE. All 67 of the Miners' points had been scored by foreign-born athletes whom Banks had recruited.
Richardson, meanwhile, was proudly displaying his bronze-and-wood championship plaque to a friend. "See that?" asked Rocket Rod, pointing to the engraving. "It says CHAMPION, and it won't ever change. They can't take that away from you. It's special. You don't stand on this hill all the time. Not for too long, no sir." You don't, that is, unless you're from UTEP.