To the 50 or so spectators who had cut school or work to be in Madison Square Garden for the daytime session of the TAC USA/Mobil Indoor Track & Field Championships last Friday, the triple jump was all but over after the Soviet Union's Oleg Protsenko soared 57'7¾" on his sixth and final attempt. That was 2¾ inches farther than any American had ever tri-leaped indoors. Protsenko already held the indoor world mark in the triple (57'11¾"), so he was supposed to win. Time to split, check out the sushi and souvlaki joints, do a little shopping at Macy's reflect on the dazzling performance of East Germany's Heike Drechsler earlier in the long jump and be back in plenty of time to catch the evening events.
Protsenko was so confident of his closing effort that he gathered up his equipment bag and departed from the nearly empty arena. "It's over.' " he told Igor Ter-Ovanesian, coach of the eight-member Soviet contingent that was competing in New York as a warmup to the first World Indoor Track and Field Championships, to be held this weekend in Indianapolis.
But six men had yet to make their final trips down the red-planked runway. One of them. Mike Conley. an assistant track and field coach at Arkansas, sought support from his wife. Renè, who was seated just behind the railing that separated the spectators from the competitors. Conley is the world's top-ranked triple jumper, with a personal best of 58'1¼" But he did that outdoors. His longest indoor jump had been only 57'1". "Do you think I can do it?" Conley asked his wife.
"You can do it." Renè assured her husband with a nod and a grin. As Conley started back up the track. Al Joyner fell into step beside him. Joyner. the triple-jump gold medalist at the LA. Olympics (Conley won the silver), had been the first competitor to jump after Protsenko. but he had landed far short of the Soviet. 55'6½". "I've been watching you." Joyner told Conley. "'You look good on the first two phases, but you're not pulling your knees up on the jump. Pull them up and keep them up."
March 9, 1987
Conley's takeoff from the board was perfect. Touching down from the hop, he launched a soaring step. "Each phase dictates how good the next one will be," he said afterward. "My middle phase [the step] was long, and it was under perfect control. I knew the last one was going to be good."
With Joyner yelling at him to pull up his knees, Conley exploded into his jump. In the stands, Renè softly chanted. "You can do it. You can do it. You can do it." She leapt to her feet: "You did it!"
As Conley landed well down the 19'6" pit, he pitched forward. His left knee landed in the cushiony sawdust, but his right one slammed outside the pit on the yellow floorboards. "A few more inches and I would have been out of the pit." he said. "I knew I had won." Conley had shattered the world indoor record with a leap of 58'3¼". It was the sixth-longest triple ever and the first to surpass 58 feet indoors.
At the Penta Hotel across the street from the Garden, Ter-Ovanesian found Protsenko lounging in the lobby. "I left too soon." said Protsenko upon learning of Conley's world record. "Maybe I should have hung around."
Which is just what Conley would do for the remainder of the day. His final touchdown had come at 3:35 p.m. Less than three hours later he was scheduled to compete in the long jump, one of the first events of the evening session. But his record performance carried an immediate responsibility—a urine test.
At four o'clock Conley. dehydrated from the long competition, went to the testing station, where he remained for the next hour and 20 minutes. "I must have drunk two gallons of water and Gatorade," he said.
When Conley finally returned to the Garden floor to defend his long-jump title, he passed on his first attempt because he needed to have his ankles re-taped. When he did jump he had lost his concentration. His best effort of the night was 25'4½". good enough only for sixth place.
Still, Conley was hardly disappointed by his day's work. He and Renè headed back to their nine-acre farm in Fayetteville. Ark., where they raise chickens and breed rottweilers. They have 14 of the dogs, almost all of them named after track and field stars: Olympian Zola von Budd, Olympian Sergey von Budd, Olympian Billy von Olson and Olympian Heike von Drechsler.
The human Drechsler had hardly dogged it at the Garden. Three hours before Conley set his record, Drechsler had become the first woman to leap more than 24 feet indoors. She, too, nearly overshot the pit. "On every jump I was scared spitless." said Drechsler, who is ranked No. 1 in both the long jump and the 200 meters and No. 2 in the 100 meters. "I thought I was going to jump right over the pit."
On her first attempt, a foul, she sprayed sawdust across the track as she landed with one foot out of the pit. Her expression was one of pure fright. Gathering her courage, on her second try she leaped a world record 24'¼".
Unlike Conley, whose world record was his first, this was Drechsler's 12th overall, her 8th in the long jump. "I felt so good today, from the time I got up in the morning." she said. "So I am not surprised I set the record. Still. I didn't think I could do it with this [wooden] runway. Last year at this meet I managed only 23'¾".
Unfortunately for the 15.859 fans who showed up for Friday night's events, the high points of the meet were the two afternoon world records. Soviet Sergey Bubka, the world-record holder and defending champion in the pole vault, passed on the first three heights, missed three times at 18'9¼". and then departed in a huff, without ever getting over the bar. The winner was Earl Bell, with a vault of 18'9¼", 9¼" below the record. In four women's running events the fields were so large that the top American runners did not face the top Europeans in the finals. Instead, each of these events—the 200. 400 and 800 meters and the 55-meter hurdles—had domestic and international finals with the overall winner determined on a best-time basis.
Perhaps if excitement lags next year, the TAC should hold the daytime events in secrecy and then run tapes of the world records that night for those who couldn't play hooky.