Bob Kersee, the UCLA women's track coach, has been hearing a lot of "Your-money-or-your-wife?" questions the last few weeks. In April, Kersee's meal ticket, Bruins senior Gail Devers, set an American record of 12.71 seconds in the 100-meter hurdles. In early May, Kersee's wife and crowning glory, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, cut that to 12.70. Two weeks ago at the Pac-10 meet at UCLA's Drake Stadium, Devers reclaimed the mark with a blazing 12.61.
Devers and Joyner-Kersee train together, but they have not raced against each other all year, nor will they. Joyner-Kersee will concentrate on the heptathlon and long jump at the Olympic trials this summer. Devers will hurdle and sprint. But there remains the nagging question of who will have that U.S. hurdles record.
About the interplay of loyalties the situation evokes, Kersee the coach wisely maintains neutrality. "They're both capable of somewhere around 12.50, anyway," he says. The world record of 12.25 was set by Ginka Zagorcheva of Bulgaria last year.
On Saturday, at the Bruce Jenner Bud Light meet in San Jose, Joyner-Kersee swept cleanly over the first seven of the 10 hurdles. She then relaxed a little and, as she put it, "went all over the place." She held her form well enough to finish in—could it be?—12.61. The drama continues. She had matched Devers's mark. "That proves I'm perfectly fair, right?" said Bob Kersee, in relief.
June 5, 1988
The women's 100-meter hurdles was just one of several noteworthy performances at the Jenner meet. Perhaps the most unexpected was by James Robinson, who ran the fastest 800—1:45.50—of the year. Yes, the very same lag-and-kick James Robinson who chased Rick Wohlhuter to the national championship in 1974, who was a member of U.S. Olympic teams for the Montreal and Moscow Games and who finished an eyelash behind John Marshall for fourth in the L.A. Olympic trials—both were timed in 1:43.92. That failure to make a third straight Olympic squad seemed to have banked Robinson's competitive fires. The following season he entered only seven races; in '86 he ran a dozen times, but last season only three.
"But this year the eye of the tiger is back," said Robinson, from behind sunglasses so dark that it couldn't be verified. At 33 he is palpable evidence of the power of the Olympics to reignite not only dreams but tissue as well.
Or, in Mary Decker Slaney's case, to bind tissue together. In June 1987 she had a serious Achilles tendon operation, which killed all of last season for her. In May of the previous year she gave birth to a daughter, Ashley, which killed that season. So the last 3,000-meter race she had run was in Rome way back in September 1985, when she set her American record of 8:25.83.
On a windy day in San Jose, and tired from her training load, Slaney wasn't going to approach that performance, the second-best in history. But she was going to be her old self, opening a 20-meter lead after a lap, stretching her advantage to 50 meters by the mile and then slowing but giving no ground. "I saw her resting up there," said second-place finisher Mary Knisely, with faint envy.
"I didn't really mean to do that," Slaney said. "It takes a while to get back to a racing mentality."
Slaney won in 8:49.43, still the best time in the U.S. this year. As she was coming off the track, her eyes looked larger, her face leaner than in campaigns past. "Physically," she said, "I haven't felt this good in years. After my first race three weeks ago [a 1,500 meters in which she ran 4:09.14], I had the feeling that somebody up there had allowed me to run this race." All her tendon soreness and calf cramps of the spring had evaporated.
Another familiar face was one thought lost to track for good. After Ron Brown finished fourth in the 100 at the L.A. Olympics and ran the second leg for the U.S. 4 X 100-meter relay team, which set the 37.83 world record, he signed with the Los Angeles Rams and spent the next four years catching passes and running back punts—but not always happily. "I missed track the whole time," said Brown in San Jose before the first 100 he would run since the Olympic final. "I love it when you can't blame the quarterback or the defense or anyone but yourself."
The Rams, said Brown, could have retained his services with a substantial increase to his $200,000 base salary. Instead, the raise (reportedly $50,000) was about one third of what Brown was looking for. "I wanted to come to terms or be traded," he said. "I wanted to stay in football. But when our positions weren't close, I went out on the track and tested my speed. I found it there. I got excited. After that, there was no way they could have kept me."
The International Amateur Athletic Federation restored Brown's Olympic eligibility after he signed a paper promising that he would never play pro football again. Unlike Renaldo Nehemiah, the hurdler and former San Francisco 49er who pioneered this path back from the NFL, Brown had no lingering injuries from his football days. Brown termed the Jenner meet "a tune-up, a race to find out where I am before going against Carl Lewis in the Pepsi meet [on June 5]."
When he came to the starting line, Brown was grateful to find 31-year-old Harvey Glance in the next lane. "I didn't know anyone else," he said. "I keyed on Harvey—he hadn't told me he had a virus."
Both reacted well to the gun, but they didn't match the acceleration of Brian Cooper. "At 60 meters all kinds of shirts were in front of me," said Brown. "I felt real uncomfortable. The first half is usually the strongest part of my race. I thought, 'You're not running right. Change.' After I changed, things got better."
Brown shot from fourth to second and closed dramatically on Cooper. Brown did indeed still have his speed, but the race was too short. Cooper held him off, 10.22 to 10.27. "I know I can do it now," said Brown afterward. "My start was better in practice."
Then he had to field a barrage of questions, the implication of which was that he must have ulterior motives, that his comeback must have something to do with improving his bargaining position with the Rams. "How do I convince people I'm not going back to football, that money or holding out has nothing to do with this?" he said. "If it were about making the most money, I'd have stayed in football."
Brown is the owner of a successful Anaheim business. Ron Brown's Automotive Concepts, which deals in exotic cars and the stereos and security systems that go with them. So apparently a fling with his first love won't break him. He has been to the Games. And those are the guys who always want to go the most.
"Risk is what life is about," said Brown with a sigh, "and the Olympics...." He searched for their essence. "Everybody is there from around the world. It's exciting to be a part of it, to be blessed enough to make it. You have stories for your grandkids. But don't get me wrong, I can run faster than I ever did, faster than my 10.06. The sub-10's Ben Johnson and Lewis are running are great. I want to get with them. I want to be part of the sub-10 generation."