After five crisp, chilled days of competition at last week's NCAA Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., Joaquim Cruz was finally facing the 800 meters, the first half of his planned double. Cruz stood erect in Lane 4 early Friday evening, awaiting the starter's call. When it came, he quickly lined up and was off with the gun into the slanting sunshine. Suddenly there was a roar, and it spread in a wave through the Hayward Field stands: "Croooooooz! Croooooooz!"
On the shoulders of the Oregon sophomore were the burdens of team, crowd and history. This night would be pivotal in Oregon's effort to upset Washington State for the men's team title, and thus Cruz, a tall, young Brazilian, absolutely had to win—just as he would have to win Saturday's 1,500 final. Not since Villanova's Don Paige did it in 1979 had anyone achieved an 800-1,500 double at the NCAA outdoors, but Cruz, the world's No. 2-ranked 800 runner in 1983, is of Olympic-medal caliber in both events. Now he ducked in behind Alabama's William Wuyke off the first turn.
Already his strategy had gone awry. An avowed front-runner, Cruz had planned to lead from gun to tape at an even pace—a 1:43 pace, good enough to lower his PR of 1:44.04, run last summer in Oslo. But Wuyke, who had lost two previous races to Cruz by hanging back, was feeding him raw sprint speed in an effort to wear him down. Cruz knew that Wuyke himself would eventually burn out and that passing him early would waste even more precious strength. Cruz and his longtime Brazilian coach, Luiz de Oliveira, were more frustrated than worried. "I knew Wuyke would try something today," said de Oliveira later, "but he played the wrong game."
Facing stiff head winds down the backstretch, Cruz decided to run in Wuyke's wake until the homestretch and then jump him at the first opportunity. At 5'9" and 143 pounds, Wuyke proved a poor shield for the 6'2", 169-pound Cruz. "It was a very bad wind," Cruz would say later, shaking his head. At 400 meters Wuyke began to fade. Cruz shot by. He took 10,117 Duck fans with him. "Croooooooz!"
June 10, 1984
The race was done. Cruz ran alone to the tape, chest out, working long, powerful strides. He finished in 1:45.10, five yards ahead of Earl Jones of Eastern Michigan. Wuyke faded to fourth, 20 yards back. Though slowed by wind and tactics, Cruz had run the year's fastest 800. "He's a horse" said Arkansas coach John McDonnell with awe.
In truth, the 21-year-old Cruz is surprisingly shy and boyish for one forced to grow up so fast. Born in Brasilia, he was only 18 when he left his widowed mother and five older siblings in September 1981 and moved to the U.S. with de Oliveira and his family. While on a visit to Brazil, Brigham Young coach Clarence Robison had invited de Oliveira to come to Provo and assist the BYU program while working on his master's degree in physical education. "Bring Joaquim along," Robison said. "He can go to school in Provo."
Cruz had set a world junior record for 800 meters (1:44.3) in 1981, but in Provo he struggled both on and off the track. Unable to speak any English, he had difficulty making friends. For the same reason, he could not enroll at BYU. Worst of all, the unmercifully cold weather forced him to train indoors, where the pounding on hard surfaces contributed to the growth of a bone spur on the top of his right foot. He lived in pain.
When the pain in the foot became too intense, Cruz and de Oliveira traveled to Eugene to consult Dr. Stan James, an orthopedic surgeon. Cruz's right leg is slightly shorter than his left, and that disparity had caused both the bone spur and the occasional back pain Joaquim had been experiencing. Cruz and de Oliveira took a liking to both James and Oregon. In January 1982, they moved to Eugene.
"It was a very difficult time for us," says de Oliveira. "Everybody in Provo had been so nice to us—but the weather was just so cold." In Eugene, things were slow to improve. Cruz enrolled in special English courses at the University of Oregon, but three times he failed the equivalency test required for full admission. "They give a tough test here," says Oregon distance runner Jim Hill. "I know Norwegians who've had English since they were five years old and failed it."
Meanwhile, the insertion of a one-centimeter lift in Cruz's right shoe was not easing the pain in his foot. On the advice of James and former Duck distance runner Rudy Chapa, Cruz finally went to Dr. Donald Baxter in Houston in July 1982 and had the spur removed. With his foot in and out of casts, he didn't run a step for the next five months.
But then everything fell into place. Cruz passed his equivalency test and entered Oregon in March 1983. Two months later he ran a 1:44.91 to win the 800 at the NCAA meet in Houston. He began to come out of his shell, to test his new language. "Even in Portuguese he doesn't talk a lot," says de Oliveira. "That's how it is in his family. He has one sister who talks a lot, and she talks for everybody." Cruz let his racing speak for itself last summer on the European circuit, where he gained valuable experience and ran third in the 800 at the world championships in Helsinki. "In the future," he promised, "there will also be the 1,500."
The NCAAs provided Cruz with a dry run for his intended 800-1,500 double at this summer's Olympic Games in Los Angeles; the future, it seems, is now. In Eugene, Cruz ran two qualifying races and two finals over four days; in L.A., he'll run four heats and two finals over nine days. "We have been planning this since 1978," says de Oliveira. "It will be hard, but he will be ready."
While most of the attention in Eugene was focusing on Cruz and the tight men's team race, Florida State was methodically wrapping up the women's title. The Lady Seminoles, rich in sprinters and quarter-milers, simply overwhelmed Tennessee, 149-124, to complete an impressive four-year dash to the top of collegiate track and field. Before 1981, Florida State was lucky to score a single point in national championship competition; in Eugene, the Lady Seminoles scored 48 in the 200 alone, with five women placing in the top nine.
"Randy Givens and Marita Payne were the foundation we built on," said the overjoyed Florida State coach, Gary Winckler. Givens, the Amityville (N.Y.) Horror herself, chilled Tennessee almost singlehandedly with victories in the 100 (11.06, wind-aided) and 200 (22.87), while Payne, the collegiate record holder for 400 meters (50.06) and a native of Concord, Ont., won her specialty in 51.05. They're both seniors, and they also ran legs on the Lady Seminoles' victorious 400-meter and mile relay teams. While Winckler was named national coach of the year in Eugene, Givens, Payne and their teammates still lack recognition. "In. the South the only sport understood is football," says Winckler. "If we had some ladies who could help out the football team—and I think we do—maybe we'd get more notice."
One team uncomfortable in the spotlight as Friday's competition continued was Washington State. The Cougars had brought a deep, internationally diverse men's squad to Eugene (17 athletes from 11 countries) and had been projected as winners by from 11 to 14 points. But now they were slipping, falling short, failing to qualify. Even when a Cougar performed well—as Julius Korir of Kenya did by running a PR of 8:19.85 in Friday's steeplechase final—someone else did even better. In Korir's case, the villain was little-known Farley Gerber a 24-year-old senior from Weber State, who beat him to the tape by four yards. Gerber's stunning 8:19.27, a PR by five seconds, made him the second-fastest American ever in the event behind Henry Marsh, who just happened to be in the stands watching. "We train together a lot in Utah," said Gerber. "He's my biggest fan, and I'm his." Nearly everyone at Hayward Field had seemed a Gerber fan as he held off Korir in the final meters. "These people are something else—I've never had such chills as on that last lap," said Gerber, adding, "I guess I was running for Oregon for a while."
So was anyone else who outraced a Cougar. When BYU junior Ed Eyestone defeated Washington State's Peter Koech in Friday's 10,000, he was accompanied by as much screaming, foot-stomping and rhythmic clapping as the Eugene faithful could muster—and they're far and away the nation's most enthusiastic track and field fans. Eye-stone, 22, a friend of Gerber's who, like him, lost two years of running while on an overseas Mormon mission (Eyestone went to Spain, Gerber to Chile), became the first American to win an NCAA 10,000 title since Penn State's Charles Maguire in 1973.
There were other notable performances outside the team race: Junior Mike Conley of Arkansas pulled off a longjump-triple jump double with wind-aided marks of 27'¼" and 56'11¾". John Brenner, a 6'3½", 285-pound UCLA senior, not only won the discus (208'1") but also threw a collegiate-record 71'11¼" in the shotput to defeat defending champ Michael Carter of SMU by seven inches. Carter, also a senior, had won every NCAA shot competition, indoors and out—a total of seven—since his freshman year. And Iowa State freshman Danny Harris, who had never run the 400 hurdles until this spring, broke the world junior record in the event for the fourth time in three months, winning in 48.81. Harris, a defensive back on the Cyclone football team, sees no problem in mixing sports. "The only difference is that in football practice I run backward all day, and in track practice I run forward," he says.
Friday ended with Oregon comfortably in third place with 41 points and Washington State a desperate ninth with 25½. Throughout the day Oregon coach Bill Dellinger had been quietly observing at trackside, hands in his pockets. "Dellinger's seen it all," said Hill. "He's run American records [1,500 and 5,000 meters]; he's been in three Olympics [1956, '60 and '64]. There's nothing you can do that he hasn't seen." But in 11 years as Oregon coach, a span during which he'd coached Salazars and Chapas and Prefontaines, Dellinger had never seen his Ducks win an NCAA track and field title. They had won four national cross-country championships for him and placed in the top six seven times in track, but not since 1970, under Bill Bowerman, had Oregon finished first at the NCAA meet. Now, in their hometown, the Ducks were ready to claim a title.
The battle on Saturday was magnificent. While Oregon's 15-member team continued to perform over its head, Washington State came roaring back with a one-two sweep of the 5,000 by Korir and Koech. Nerves and luck came to bear. Hill, the prerace favorite in the 5,000, tripped with 700 meters to go and finished third. Cougar sprinter Lee Gordon peeled off his sweats for the 100—and found he wasn't wearing a singlet. He rushed off to find one, returned and placed a surprising second behind Tennessee's Sam Graddy. As Cruz and sophomore teammate Dub Myers lined up for the 1,500, the score was Oregon 76, Washington State 74½
Cruz grabbed the lead in the first 20 yards and took the pack in tow. "I wanted to go fast on the first lap and try to kill them," he explained later. So he did. He would hold the lead to the end.
The crowd was frenzied. "They started clapping before the start," said Myers. "I got chills." During the race the noise was astounding; Myers, running near the back of the pack, was drowning in it. "I couldn't hear any splits," he said. "I tried to read the guy's lips."
In a mighty burst down the final backstretch Myers rocketed from 10th place to third. Everyone was standing. Cruz came home first in 3:36.48—a Brazilian record—and punched fists in the air. Myers held third behind Villanova's Marcus O'Sullivan in 3:37.94. Each had run a personal best—Cruz by 1.24 seconds and Myers by almost 3½ seconds—and Oregon had added 25 team points. The meet wasn't over, but the title was Oregon's.
The final total would read Oregon 113, Washington State 94½ Cruz, tired before the 1,500, said he had drawn inspiration from watching the 5,000. Hill, a fifth-year senior, had redshirted in 1983 so he could run this NCAA meet—and then he had fallen. "Jim Hill losing...I felt stronger. I had to do it for the team," said Cruz. "And I did it."
"He's Superman," said Myers.
As Hill hoisted the championship plaque on the victory stand, his teammates crowding around him, the familiar cry rang out again, long and loud: "Croooooooz!"