Preparing A Big Move

Sept. 07, 1987
Sept. 07, 1987

Table of Contents
Sept. 7, 1987

World Championships
George Bell
Point After

Preparing A Big Move

Butch Reynolds may be the one to finally break the 400-meter record that Lee Evans set 19 years ago

The realism-in-reading campaign asks you to take three deep breaths. Now one more, and hold it in. O.K., don't breathe again until you get to the end of the next two paragraphs. Pace yourself right and it will take 44 seconds. There will be a payoff.

This is an article from the Sept. 7, 1987 issue Original Layout

Meet Harry (Butch) Reynolds Jr. He's 23 and a senior-to-be at Ohio State, has eyes as green as chestnut leaves (what do you think a buckeye is, anyway?), a gentle voice and manner, and the fastest time for 400 meters (44.10) since 1968. Lee Evans's record of 43.86 was set at the Olympics in the thin air of Mexico City's 7,350-foot elevation, and Reynolds's time, run at sea level, is judged its equal.

The revelation of the track season, Reynolds is Ohio through and through, representing a sporting strain that runs from Jesse Owens to Jack Nicklaus. You haven't heard of Reynolds before because no one has. He and destiny have conspired to spring him upon us whole, without the warning of a promising high school career. (Hang tough, now. Involuntary spasms of your stomach muscles are perfectly normal.) This week Reynolds, who won both the NCAA and TAC nationals, takes his mark for the biggest quarter mile of his life, at the World Championships in Rome. He's approaching it as he has the rest of this spectacular, instructive year, with refreshing curiosity. "Hey. no matter how it comes out," he says, "I'm going to be happy."

O.K., now that things are starting to go black, breathe. The reward you should feel is a heightened appreciation of Reynolds's craft.

Even if you fainted halfway through that prologue to the man, you had only the mildest hint of how it feels to be a quarter-miler in the stretch. But at least you can extend some sympathy to Reynolds and opponents, who reach the end of 400 meters only by building up one hell of an oxygen debt.

The shared pain of trying to sprint about 100 meters farther than man was engineered to go serves as an initiation right. The quarter builds a brotherhood.

In June, after Reynolds won the TAC meet in San Jose with a 44.46 in both his semi and the final, he got a call from Tommie Smith, the 1968 Olympic 200-meter champion who once held the 440-yard world record at 44.8 (equal to a 44.5 for 400 meters). Smith told Reynolds he can run 43.6. "Just believe it's there, Butch," Smith said. "It's a tough race."

"I already believe," Reynolds replied, "but it's nice to have somebody understand how hard it is."

"Always the same," said his father, Harry Sr. "In high school he hated the 400. He always said no. But then he always ran it."

Reynolds grew up in Akron, where his father, Harry Sr., built tires and then worked as a maintenance man at General Tire for 24 years before the company closed the factory in 1982. The senior Reynolds played high school basketball in Akron with Gus Johnson in the late 1950s, but because of his marriage as a teenager to Butch's mother, Catherine, and the birth of Butch's older sister, Sheila, now 29, he never took his game to college. So you know what his sons, Butch and Jeff, 21, got.

"They got no choice," says Harry Sr.

This father's first principle was Keep 'Em Busy: "I believed in educational games. Butch was a chess player in grade school tournaments. He golfed, bowled and played basketball and football. Running was to stay in shape for basketball. What he did in track was a complete surprise to me."

Butch's mother has spent her working life as a child-care worker at the Summit County Children's Home in Akron. Butch and Jeff, therefore, became athletes and gentlemen.

Butch's parents were separated when he was 16 and a student at Archbishop Hoban High School, where he played good basketball—"Not quite as good as I did," says his dad. "But I'm a cocky father"—ran the sprints and long-jumped. He played football only his senior year. On a 1-9 team, missing three weeks with a sprained ankle, he played both ways, caught 23 passes for a 20.1-yard average, made 31 tackles and two interceptions. His football coach, Clemens Caraboolad, recalls him always turning up in his office to ask what more he could do to help his struggling team.

"I couldn't persuade one college coach to consider Harry for a football career," laments Caraboolad. "They didn't like the way he caught the ball. I said he'd only played one season. Teach him. A couple of coaches even told me he wasn't fast enough. What idiots." In his senior year, Reynolds ran 10.4, 21.5 and 48.1 in the 100, 200 and 400 meters and long-jumped 23 feet.

Reynolds is 6'3" and 175, with a stride that appears so long and effortless that he doesn't seem the rocket he is, until you look down at your watch. He was favored to win all four events in the Ohio high school championships in 1983; but in the regional meet a week earlier heavy rain turned the long-jump pit to stone. Reynolds was the first jumper.

"The sand just didn't give," he says, "but my knee sure did. I did an instinctive flip which probably kept me from ligament damage." Still, the strain was so severe that his season was finished, and Reynolds was heartbroken.

"My track coach said, 'This is for a reason,' " he remembers. " 'There is something better out there for you.' "

But not before there was worse. For all his energy and interests, Reynolds was not a hardworking student. "We insisted that school be as much a part of the formula as sports," says Catherine, "but he was too casual about it. He seemed 'lack-a-daisy.' "

As in rhymes with lazy. His cumulative GPA at Hoban was a door-slamming 1.96.

So he went to Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kans. "I got hurt in high school because I never trained," he says. "I missed an NCAA scholarship because I never studied. If I'd won four in the state meet, I'd have thought that was the way to do it. But things happen for a reason. The obstacles let me know that life is what you make it."

Butler coach John Francis bent him to six-mile cross-country runs, a weight-training regimen and repeated, long intervals. All had the same objective: to give him the strength and stamina to carry his native speed through his race's second 200. Reynolds responded with a 45.47 to win the 1984 junior college nationals and reached the semifinals of the 400 at the '84 Olympic trials.

That fall, because of tight family finances, he got a late start in school, never caught up, and spent the year on academic probation. "My dad had lost his job," he says. "But then we decided to turn our lives around."

Butch was a bear in summer school in 1985. When it was over, he had his associate degree in business and marketing and his pick of track scholarships (and Harry Sr. soon found a new job with Polysar Rubber in Akron). Alabama and Florida State were warm and inviting. Ohio State offered Ohio winters and a football school that had nurtured three top sprinters in 50 years: Owens in 1933-'36, Mai Whitfield (the 1948 and '52 Olympic 800 champ) and Glenn Davis (the '56 and '60 gold medalist over the 400-meter hurdles).

Reynolds chose Ohio State. "The OSU degree in education will be meaningful," he says dutifully, for that is only half of it. Butler coach Francis had told him, "You are going to break Lee Evans's record. You are from Ohio. So go back there and do it. They'll love you for it." If the Buckeyes didn't have a lively track program, Reynolds would simply try to lift one about him by force of example. Yet again he had to wait. He ran 45.36 in 1986, but a hamstring strain ended his season in May.

Healed by late summer, Reynolds got to thinking how he had only one life to live, and he did an interesting thing. He told his coaches to get serious. "They were too laid-back," he says now. "I told them. 'You've got to get on the ball. I'm a winner. This team can be a winner, too, but you've got to come along.' "

OSU head coach Frank Zubovich says his ensuing leadership was no different than it had been in past years. Reynolds says things did change for the better. They're probably both right, because Reynolds put in near-perfect off-season training, Zubovich learned not to work him hard on the Mondays after meets, and in May, at the Jesse Owens Classic in Columbus, Reynolds burned one clean lap in 44.10. As if that weren't sufficient shock, the Ohio Stadium clock read, unofficially, 43.78.

"I knew I hadn't run that fast," says Reynolds. "I stumbled a little at the start. Then I made up ground too fast. So I eased some, and then made a move in the last 100. My brother Jeff said, 'You had three gears that day.' " His 44.13 at the NCAAs in June in Baton Rouge and 44.15 in July in London came harder but were still faster than anyone else has run since 1968. "I didn't have that 'easy race' feeling," says Reynolds, "so I know I can go faster."

Reynolds's style of quarter-miling is not simply a display of pure speed. It's a show of rangy economy and intelligent pace in the first 200, then a greedy closing kick that very few have had.

"How do I avoid riggin' up?" asks Reynolds, employing basic quarter-miler talk in reference to how your muscles turn to fiberglass at the 300-meter mark. "It's as if I know I'm tired, but when there are people with me, guys in my peripheral vision, I just have to leave 'em. Sometimes when I hear 'em, I try too hard. In the NCAAs I ran a step or two out of my lane because I wasn't able to handle all the force I came up with."

Or all the consequences of his new powers. Within a day of his 44.10, he was awash in offers from European meet promoters. "It made for a cram course in saying no," he says. "About four different people wanted to take me overseas, take care of expenses, one thing and another. I learned so much so fast it was pathetic."

A valuable teacher was another gentleman from Ohio, one Edwin Moses. "He told me you can't trust everybody, and mentioned a few you can," says Reynolds. "But at this point I haven't retained anybody to represent me. I've just used the advice and counsel of friends." Reynolds says he's almost certain that he'll forgo his last year of NCAA eligibility to train for the Seoul Olympics, but adds, "I know one thing: I'm staying in school and getting the degree."

Reynolds's races and manner convey a maturity beyond his experience, but occasionally he makes a remark that causes those around him to sag with age. For example, he cannot remember the last World Championships, that magnificent meet in 1983 in Helsinki when Mary Decker Slaney twice beat the Russians, and Carl Lewis served notice that the Olympics would be his. "I was just out of high school then," Reynolds says gleefully. "I did go to the L.A. Olympics. My track memories begin with that."

And he runs preliminaries as if they were finals. "I like to coast in, sure, so long as I'm winning" he says. "But it's hard to come in behind guys. If they want to go, we're going to go. I don't care if it's Round 1." That's a vow that will have U.S. coaches wincing. There are four rounds in the World Championships. If Reynolds runs them all in 45's and 44's, he will be a stiff-legged finalist.

That's not his only problem. While he has been racing hard since May, his prime competition in Rome, Gabriel Tiacoh of the Ivory Coast and Innocent Egbunike of Nigeria, have planned their peaks for Sept. 3, at 5:20 p.m., when the gun will sound for the 400 final. Reynolds's only loss this year was to Egbunike, in Paris on July 16, where he ran 44.77 to the Nigerian's 44.64.

After winning a 300 in Belfast on July 20, a tired and homesick Reynolds returned to Columbus, to the neat, gray apartment he shares with Lillian Lumb, his girlfriend since their Kansas days. "He is a different man since I met him," she says dryly. "He's worse."

At home he could sleep until 10, visit the Ohio State Fair, listen to a little jazz. "The apartment is good to get back to," he said. "But my motto is Improvement Everywhere. My next goal is to buy a house. It's a good investment. I'll not leave Ohio without owning property here." Is that the lure of Ohio, or are all 23-year-olds like that now?

He went to work out at Ohio Stadium and found the season had changed. "Football bleachers across my track," he said in mock dismay. "And the assistant track coach tells me that no, the football program doesn't feel it owes us a courtesy call to tell us what it's done."

But he found a quiet high school field and got in his last licks. "I'm not a practice pup," he said. "I'm an excitement runner. Carrying the U.S.A. on my chest for the first time in Rome will keep me excited. But I wonder whether I can go out there and run a 43 if I have to. Am I that strong, mentally and physically? I'm curious to find out, but I'm also excited to see what another good winter of strength training will bring."

Ambition, obviously, has set in. We have another Buckeye bound for glory.

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOHis dad's keep-'em-busy philosophy put Reynolds into chess, among other pursuits.PHOTODAVE STOCK/FOCUS WESTReynolds's TAC victory, in 44.46, qualified him for the World Championships in Rome.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOOn a midsummer break, Reynolds and Lumb took to the sky at the Ohio State Fair.