When the NCAA track and field championships returned last week to the University of Oregon's Hay ward Field after a four-year absence, they found a remodeled 400-meter track and a crowd high with anxiety. Would $1.5 million worth of wider turns and new urethane surface produce performances so good that Eugene could lure back in 1992 what it lost this year to Indianapolis: the Olympic trials?
The track was certainly fast. Witness Joe DeLoach of Houston winning the 100 in 10.03, swiftest in the world this season. But the real test would be in the 200, the race most discombobulated by the old track's wrenching 100-yard bends. "It's always a choice between slowing down or spinning out," Carl Lewis said at the 1986 TAC meet there.
So it was that Lorenzo Daniel of Mississippi State put a lot of fears to rest, including his own, when he ripped freely through the turn and won in 19.87, a collegiate record. Suddenly Daniel, 22, is the fifth-fastest 200 man ever, which is sobering when you recall that the top four are Pietro Mennea, Lewis, Tommie Smith and Don Quarrie—Olympic gold medalists all. "The turn won it for me," said Daniel.
"Ah, these turns—wish I'd had em," said a wistful UCLA sprint coach, John Smith, who set a world record in the 440 yards (44.5) at the 1971 AAU meet in Eugene. But Smith brought more to the nationals than memories. He had in tow the best set of quarter-milers any university has ever gathered, groomed and gloried in.
They were, in the order they would run the concluding 4 X 400-meter relay:
•Steve Lewis, a 19-year-old freshman from Fremont, Calif. At the Pac-10 meet last month, Lewis would have set a world junior record with his 44.65 if he had been given a urine test after the race. In Eugene, Lewis ran second in the 400 with 44.83.
•Kevin Young, a 6'4" senior from Los Angeles, who on Friday won the 400-meter hurdles by an astounding 20 meters, the largest winning margin ever by an intermediate hurdler in the NCAAs. His 47.85 made him sixth-fastest in history and guaranteed that one magnificent U.S. hurdler will be crushed at the trials, because Edwin Moses. Danny Harris. Andre Phillips and Young can't all go to Seoul.
•Danny Everett, a 6'2", 155-pound length of electrical tubing from L.A., who won the 400 going away in 44.52. "He came to UCLA at 6'2" and 140 pounds," said head coach Bob Larsen of Everett, now a junior. "And we had to think. That's more an 800-meter body than a 200-meter one. But then we saw the speed." Everett's 44.34 and 20.23 at the Pac-10 meet was the fastest 400/200 double ever.
•Henry Thomas, a 6'2" junior from Hawthorne, Calif., who finished third in the 200. behind Daniel and Atlee Ma-horn of Cal. in 20.25, and who anchored UCLA's 4 X 100-meter relay to a 39.04 second place behind Texas A & M's 38.84.
These four men were pledged to break a once-inconceivable collegiate barrier in the 4 x 400 relay. They wanted three minutes. A sub-45-second average. "We tried last year and blew it," said Smith. In 1987, with Anthony Washington in place of Lewis, UCLA had run a collegiate record 3:00.55 (the world record is 2:56.16). They decided this was the time and place.
As they warmed up and stretched, they watched the UCLA women's 4 X 400 relay team race with pride but with little chance of salvaging the team championship that they had been favored to win. Senior phenomenon Gail Devers had had a rocky meet, and as Devers went, so descended the Bruins.
The owner of the best marks in the field in the long jump, 100-meter hurdles and 100 sprint. Devers began by being nipped in the long jump by George Mason's Nena Gage, 21'8¾" to 21'6". In four illustrious point-amassing years, Devers still had never won an individual NCAA championship. "I'll refuse to let her leave here without a title," declared UCLA women's coach Bob Kersee. "She's too good an athlete."
In the 100, Devers at last was supreme. She led every step, building a huge lead in the second 50. "When I got to the end," she said, "I couldn't control my feet. I figured I must be going pretty fast." Her 10.86 was under the college record of 10.94, set in 1983 by Diane Williams, but it won't stand as a record because the wind exceeded the allowable 2.00 meters per second.
An hour later, Devers was in the blocks for the 100 hurdles, for which she shares the U.S. record of 12.61 with her coach's wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Her left leg was gaudily encircled with tape and blue foam to pad the bruises she gets when, as often happens, her trailing leg clips the barriers.
Devers started well, though Arizona State's Lynda Tolbert kept close. At midrace, here came Tennessee's LaVonna Martin flying. Devers nicked the eighth hurdle and clobbered the ninth. Tolbert shot past to win in 12.82 and burst into amazed tears. Martin's 12.85 put Devers's 12.90 in third.
"Things happen," said Devers dryly, and this particular thing cost UCLA anticipated points and helped LSU win the team championship.
LSU was led by Schowonda Williams, who won the 400-meter hurdles in 55.53. The Tigers had no other winners, just a host of seconds, thirds and fourths. But in the NCAAs, it is usually better to be deep than brilliant.
Going into the last event, the 4 X 400 relay, UCLA trailed LSU, 53 to 48, but still had a shot at the team title. Devers contributed a strong 51.4 second leg and watched as teammate Janeene Vickers pulled out a stirring victory, 3:29.82 to 3:29:93, over—guess who—LSU's anchor, the indefatigable Williams. LSU's strong showing meant only a two-point swing to UCLA, and the Tigers won the women's half of the meet, 61 to 58.
The UCLA men had salted away the team title long before the men's 4 x 400 relay. The quarter-milers would run at their barrier for coach and friendship. "All the credit goes to John Smith," said Lewis, but Lewis deserved plenty for a smooth opening leg from the eighth lane, where he ran blind to what anyone else was doing. His split: 45.0.
Lewis handed the baton to Young, who was passed on the inside by Florida's Dennis Mitchell. A stiff north wind blew against them in the backstretch. "It was tricky," said Young. "You had to run just hard enough to cut through it without killing yourself." He repassed Mitchell and strode in evenly at 44.4.
Everett ran third. His thighs were tight and strangely numb. "I think I over-iced them," he said. But he has technique to call on when raw muscle is unwilling. He held on to run 45.3.
Thomas anchored. He sprinted nearly all-out, wind-be-damned, and had four expensive yards on Mark Everett of Florida after 200. Then he had to hold on and pay. With low, driving arms, he maintained his form, finishing in 45.2 for a winning 2:59.91.
"They can run faster," said Smith. "But they had to break that record to win the race. That's what I love about these four very different characters. I know they'll always give a good account of themselves." He paused, styling the perfect phrase. "The guys just have savoir faire."