Fast Turns And Strange Twists

As others cashed in on the banks, Mary (Decker) Slaney was felled by fate during the Olympic Invitational
February 18, 1985

Bill Cosby, preparing for a guest appearance in a sort of relay race at last Saturday's U.S. Olympic Invitational meet in East Rutherford, N.J., described how hard it is for older, married track athletes like himself to continue with their competitive careers. "Our training schedules are, of course, hampered by children," he said, "and by wives who treat us like Little Leaguers." When asked whether he planned to take advantage of the steeply banked turns of the 176-yard, plywood-and-fiber-glass track at Brendan Byrne Arena to gain momentum for the straightaways, Cosby shook his head. "There is no straightaway when you reach 47," he said. "It's all turns."

As comedy would have it, Saturday's meet was full of turns—strange turns, wrong turns and turns of fate—but it also proved a showcase for family folks such as Cosby. Hey...hey...hey...here comes Ruth Wysocki, 27 and twice married, outdueling 34-year-old Olympic champion Maricia Puica of Romania, a woman coached by her husband, to win the 3,000 meters in 8:49.93, history's third-fastest indoor time. Hey...hey...hey...there goes 18-year-old Brendan Richards, clearing a high school record 17'5" in the pole vault event named for his dad, two-time Olympic champion Bob. And hey...hey...hey...there was Cosby himself, a former 6' 7¾" high jumper at Temple, winning a race that was being taped for his TV sitcom. That event, alas, was fixed.

The wackiest turn had Carl Lewis, who'd just won the 55-meter dash in 6.15 seconds, delivering a stunning, Johnny Mathis-quavering, a cappella version of the national anthem (unofficial clocking: 1:35.4). "I sang backup vocals on this," said Lewis afterward, holding up an album called The Nature of Things by Narada Michael Walden. Walden, if you've forgotten—and you're lucky if you have—produced Lewis's single of last summer, Goin' for the Gold.

In the most unexpected twist of the evening, Mary (Don't Call Me Decker) Slaney, who was using her latest married name for the first time in competition, pulled up two laps short of a probable world record in the 1,500 meters because of a cramp in her right calf. "She told me when she stepped off the track she wasn't even breathing hard," said her coach, Dick Brown. If the cramp caused no lasting damage, such as a muscle tear, Brown wants to find another 1,500 so as not to waste Slaney's extraordinary state of fitness. "It's like a lady who's dressed up to dance," he said softly, "and there's no dance."

The best dances of the evening clearly belonged to veteran miler Eamonn Coghlan, 32, and last year's Olympic mother of the year, Valerie Brisco-Hooks. Talk about family disruptions: Brisco-Hooks, 24, wife of former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alvin Hooks, left track for two full years after her son, Alvin Jr., now 3, was born, yet came back in 1984 to win three gold medals (200 meters, 400 and 4 X 400 relay) at the Los Angeles Games. "I have a stubborn will," she said on Saturday. "When I set my mind to do something, it's hard to sway me."

At the Olympic meet her mind was set on lowering the American indoor 400-meter record of 52.99 she'd set a week earlier in Dallas. There Brisco-Hooks had run alone, unchallenged; here she would be hounded by the former U.S. record holder, 20-year-old Diane Dixon, a 5'5", 120-pound fighter out of the tough Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. That was fine with Brisco-Hooks. She wanted to avenge her loss to Dixon in last month's Millrose Games 400. And she wanted to take as much off the U.S. record as she could.

If anything could have kept Brisco-Hooks from attaining her goal Saturday, it was fatigue. She had flown all night to get to New Jersey after competing in Friday's L.A. Times meet, where she'd won the women's 500 meters. Her plane had been delayed by rain. Then her luggage was stuck in a frozen-shut cargo hold for two hours. By meet time, Brisco-Hooks had managed only a short nap.

Still, when the 400 began, she moved straight to the lead; Dixon was right behind. At the Millrose Games, Dixon had shadowed Brisco-Hooks until the final turn and then rocketed past her. "I was expecting it this time," said Brisco-Hooks. "I was just running gung ho and wondering when Diane would come."

But because of the noise from the meet-record crowd of 14,833 on Saturday night, Brisco-Hooks couldn't hear what splits her coach, Bob Kersee, was yelling to her. She just raced along, her tight braids pulled back into a ponytail, her worries about Dixon unabated. Going into the gun lap, Brisco-Hooks led by just a yard.

On the final turn, Brisco-Hooks finally heard Kersee. "Drive off the curve!" he was shouting. Dixon was making her charge. "I drove, like Bobby said, but it forced me out into Lane 2," Brisco-Hooks said later. "I tried to get back into Lane 1, but my knees kind of buckled." Dixon came at her along the rail. At the tape, both leaned. The crowd was standing and roaring—but for whom?

The finish-line photo was examined. Brisco-Hooks would later carry a copy of it around with her, staring down at the fuzzy black-and-white images and saying in amazement, "Oooooh! Just by a nip!" She'd won. Her time of 52.63—an American indoor record—was .01 faster than Dixon's. "If I'm running this fast indoors," said Brisco-Hooks, who has never shown much speed on the boards, "maybe when I get outdoors I'll be able to go for the world record [held by Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia at 49.59]. That's what I want—real bad."

Coghlan, meanwhile, was shooting for the world indoor mile record of 3:49.78 he'd set two years ago on this track—one he'd helped design. "I'm wearing the same shoes I did then," he said. "And if you remember, I had some numbers written in the heels. The numbers are still there." The numbers he'd written were "3:49.5." "That's still my goal," he said.

Coghlan soon discovered, however, that he'd have challenge enough just maintaining his 14-race indoor winning streak. With three laps to go, former 1,500 record holder Sydney Maree bolted clear of the five, other runners in the field. Only Coghlan hung tight in his wake. "Sydney was pushing it so hard it was drawing the speed out of me," said Coghlan later. "On the last backstretch he was going so hard I didn't think I could respond."

Yet even as he lagged five yards behind Maree, Coghlan was sizing him up. Going into the final curve, Coghlan struck. "I'd watched Sydney the previous three laps and noticed that he wasn't utilizing the turns to his best advantage," he said later. "He wasn't springing off them. So I decided to make my move." Coghlan blasted off the final banking, shot past Maree and hit the tape in 3:52.37—the fastest mile of the year. Maree crossed in 3:52.40, frustrated. "There's nothing to say that Eamonn is better than any of us indoors," he said, "but he thinks he's better than all of us. And we think he's better than all of us."

As he appeared beneath the stands to talk with the press, Coghlan had with him his two children, Suzanne, 6, and Eamonn Jr., 3. Daddy had a new family act to show off.

"Watch this," he told reporters. "I say 'Sydney' to them and they say..."

"Maree!" came the reply.

"I say 'John'; they say..."

"Walker!"

"I say 'Steve'; they say..."

"Scott!"

"Now I say, 'Who's going to win?' "

"Daddy!" And proud parent Coghlan turned on his smile.

PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNBrisco-Hooks proved she deserved to be No. 1 by edging Dixon in a furious 400 finish. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNLewis sang up a Star-Spangled storm after winning the 55 sprint.

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)