The steady, springtime breezes sluicing through the mountains and valleys of California create what four-time Olympic discus thrower Al Oerter calls wind allies. It's the Lord's annual gift to discus and javelin throwers—who fire away into the gusts, usually for some of the year's best marks—but a mixed blessing for others. Last week in the soft brown hills of Southern California, at the Puma-Energizer/Mt. San Antonio College Relays in Walnut, roughly 7,000 athletes were either moved or—more likely—mugged by winds of up to 20 mph in Mt. SAC alley. Yet a couple of surprising shotputters loomed too large for even gales to budge, and eight other Americans at the meet came through with 1984 world bests. Already, it seems, U.S. Olympic hopes are also blowing strong.
Standing sturdy in the wind as Sunday's invitational sprints began was 5'5", 115-pound Evelyn Ashford, who several months ago was thinking more about lost opportunities than about the weather. The memory is painful: There she was, in the 100-meter finals of the World Championships in Helsinki last Aug. 8—just five weeks after her world-record performance in the event (10.79) at Colorado Springs—racing her archrival, Marlies G√∂hr of East Germany. There Ashford was, in full stride, about to surge, when—pop!—a right buttock muscle tore. Fifty meters from the tape, she crumpled to the track and lay writhing. There she was, through for the year.
But at age 27, and with four World Cup titles and 20 of the 23 fastest 100s in U.S. history behind her, Ashford knew not to panic. With a month or so of rest and rehabilitation, her leg healed—so quickly and thoroughly, in fact, that she came through the experience with little or no psychological scarring. That was the biggest worry; in sprinting there's no room for self-doubt.
Ashford passed up the entire indoor season, instead staying home in L.A. to train. Her coach, Pat Connolly, wants her stronger for the Olympics, where, so to speak, Evelyn has an ox to G√∂hr. And thus when Ashford began competing outdoors in December, she ran over-distance races, 400s and 800s, even a 3,000. (For the benefit of the cognoscenti, her best 800 was 2:13.07; the 3,000, 13:03.1.) For most sprinters a full set on a disco floor qualifies as endurance work; a 3,000 is a distance best traveled by car. But on Sunday, just 90 minutes after running the 100, Ashford took second to Chandra Cheeseborough in the 400. Unfortunately, she finished nine yards back in a time too slow (52.11) to please Connolly. "I'll be doing more 400s after this," said Ashford glumly, like a woman condemned.
But Sunday's 100 was pure pleasure for her, a bright burst straight down the alley with the wind squarely at her back. Ashford came out of the blocks with a slight edge on former Cal State-North-ridge star Alice Brown and Olympian Merlene Ottey of Jamaica and used her strength to steadily widen the gap. She hit the tape five feet ahead of Ottey, nine ahead of Brown. "It didn't really feel fast," Ashford said later. "There weren't any surges." But the performance left the crowd of 10,000 buzzing, because an electronic clock near the finish line showed Ashford's time as 10.72, .07 under her own world record.
Officially, however, her clocking was an almost-as-impressive 10.88. It would have equaled the sixth-fastest mark in history—except that Ashford had ridden a tailwind of 2.93 meters per second, .93 above the legal limit. Of little consolation to her was the news that Carl Lewis's 10.06, the fastest 100 so far this year, had been legal. As if by magic, the wind had completely vanished during Lewis's victory (by two feet) over Ron Brown, which took place just moments after Ashford's race. "God is on Carl's side," sighed Evelyn.
When the sprints ended, attention shifted to the shot circle, where 38-year-old Brian Oldfield, who once threw a 75'0" as a pro, was trading 540-degree-spin deliveries with 22-year-old Augie Wolf, the rising star of the event. On his first effort the 6'5", 275-pound Oldfield heaved the shot 70'7¾" and yelled, "Shaboo-bee!" To which the 6'6", 285-pound Wolf, who has a degree in economics and international relations from Princeton, would later say, "Amazing." Oldfield, who 24 hours and one coast-to-coast plane trip earlier had finished second to Wolf (69'7½" to 68'6½") at the Penn Relays, hadn't had a 70-foot throw since June 1981. He hadn't even planned to come to Mt. SAC, thinking that its shot competition was on Saturday and conflicted with the one at Penn. Informed otherwise, he hurried to the Philadelphia airport late Saturday afternoon, called Mt. SAC meet director Don Ruh from a pay phone and got himself entered.
As for "Shaboobee," well, that could be Oldfield's word for "Take that, International Olympic Committee!" Because he competed on the now defunct pro track circuit back in the mid-1970s, Oldfield is banned from Olympic competition by the IOC. Track's U.S. and international governing bodies both have reinstated Oldfield as an amateur, but time is running short on his legal appeal to the IOC.
Wolf, whose throw of 71'3½" at a small meet in Leverkusen, West Germany last month made him a leading contender for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team, had never thrown farther than 67'2" before this year. But last October he moved to Leverkusen and absolutely immersed himself in shotputting. He trained with Rudi Hars, an outstanding German club coach, for most of seven months, using his spare time to analyze and reanalyze 15 years of Track & Field News statistics on the event. In order to put his own career progress into perspective he even made out file cards on every man who ever put the shot 20 meters (65'7½") or farther. His conclusion? "Objectively speaking," he says, "I can go big over the world record (72'10¾" by Udo Beyer of East Germany) sometime after the Olympics."
On Sunday, Wolf couldn't quite match the gravelly roars or the opening toss of Oldfield. But a put of 70'5¼", good for second place, left him happy enough. "They all know I'm for real now," he said, speaking objectively. Old-field, meanwhile, was justifiably allowing as how he'd like to meet a few of those IOC stiffs in a different kind of alley, a dark one.
Off in the press tent, Ashford, having finished her 400, was being her feisty old self with reporters. She smirked at the inanity of a few of their questions (e.g., "Will you show us where you pulled your muscle?" to which she bared only her smile), and confidently noted that she thinks she'll break the world 200-meter record (21.71, held by Marita Koch of East Germany) this year. She even admitted that, yes, she's very eager to cash in on whatever fame the Olympics bring her. "I feel that it will take three gold medals for me to get endorsements," she said. "Mainly because I'm a black female sprinter. I have to be better."
Mind you, Ashford isn't greedier than other track athletes, or more cynical; just more candid. In fact, having now come back from major injuries twice in the last four years—in May of 1980 she tore a hamstring—she has become more appreciative of her rare talent. "As long as I've got two legs and they can move," she said, "I'll run." For now she's doing it in true Ashford style: sometimes with the wind, always like the wind.