Low, smoky clouds rolled in off the Wasatch Mountains above Provo, Utah, last Saturday night as high jumper Hollis Conway prepared for his second attempt at an American record 7'9¾". He had already won the event with a leap of 7'7¾" on this fourth and final day of the NCAA track and field championships. But as the 6'¼" Conway, a Southwestern Louisiana junior, stood measuring the bar with his eye, he seemed to be doubly dwarfed, first by the challenge before him and second by the rugged peaks behind him.
Conway, who had surprised everyone by-taking home the silver medal from the Seoul Olympics, knew that the BYU facility, with its rarefied atmosphere and spacious jumping apron, enjoyed a reputation as a jumper's paradise. "I'd heard so many stories about this place," he would say later, "I couldn't wait to get here."
Conway bounded in from the right side of the pit, planted and soared. "On the way up I brushed the bar with my right shoulder," he said. "I closed my eyes as I went over and landed in the pit." Above him, the bar moved ever so slightly. But it stayed put. The old record of 7'9¼"had been shared by Conway, Tom McCants and Jerome Carter.
The bar was raised, and Conway had two near misses at 7'10½" and one surprisingly close attempt at the Holy Grail of high jumping, 8 feet, which is a half inch higher than the world record held by Javier Sotomayor of Cuba.
Though he raked the bar with the back of his calves, Conway was encouraged by his first world-record attempt. "When I jump at 7'10" or higher," he said, "I'm tentative because I don't know where the bar is. One reason I go up to these heights is to get experience."
The mountainous background to Conway's heroics offered a literally breathtaking reminder that this year's NCAA meet was being held at an altitude of 4,530 feet. To no one's surprise, the distance runners were cautious and slow, the sprinters recklessly fast. Vicki Huber of Villanova closed out her collegiate track career by winning the 3,000 meters in a respectable 9:06.96, for her seventh NCAA title.
Among the sprinters, no one displayed more graceful power than Dawn Sowell, the LSU senior who looks poised to inherit Florence Griffith Joyner's mantle as the fastest U.S. woman. Like Flo-Jo, Sowell relies on a smooth change of gears some 50 meters from the finish in the 100. In Friday's 200, she surged away from the field in the straight and reached the finish in 22.04, .13 of a second under the seven-year-old collegiate mark set by Merlene Ottey of Nebraska. Later that night she ran the second leg on LSU's 4 x 100 relay, which clocked a 42.50 to chop .44 off the NCAA record set by Florida State in 1983.
In Saturday night's 100-meter final, Sowell recovered from an indifferent start with another Flo-Joian spurt midway through the race. "I was trying to lift, because I was going too slow," she said later. "So I tried to think, up-down-up-down." Sowell's winning time was 10.78, making her the third fastest woman of all time, after Griffith Joyner and Evelyn Ashford, the two most recent world-record holders in the event.
Shortly after Sowell's victory, the LSU women clinched their third straight outdoor team title when junior Tananjalyn Stanley and freshman Cinnamon Sheffield finished first and second, respectively, in the 100-meter hurdles. LSU made it a sweep by upsetting pre-meet favorites UCLA and Florida to win the men's team crown as well.
With their 39-point defeat of second-place UCLA, the LSU women closed out a season that has been marked as much by controversy off the track as by speed on it. Said Sowell of the Lady Tigers' effort in Provo, "Everyone came together through a lot of adversity. A lot of things are going on at our institution that aren't very positive."
Foremost among them was the firing in April of Loren Seagrave, the innovative women's coach who led the Lady Tigers to four NCAA championships—two outdoor and two indoor—over the past three years. There have been published reports that Seagrave was dismissed because of allegations of sexual misconduct stemming from an all-night counseling session he had with one of his athletes. Seagrave admits that while consoling the distraught athlete, whose identity was withheld, he hugged her and kissed her on the cheek; both Seagrave and the woman denied that anything more happened. LSU athletic director Joe Dean has said only that he "cannot tolerate my coaches spending all-night sessions with the opposite sex, hugging and kissing." Seagrave is seeking reinstatement as coach and is suing the university, Dean and head track coach Pat Henry for a total of $2 million.
After his firing, Seagrave coached his athletes by phone, while Henry was the official coach for both the men's and women's teams. Seagrave paid his own way to Provo to watch the Lady Tigers compete and to offer them technical pointers. When the meet was over, the women celebrated by tossing him into the steeplechase water-jump pit.
Though he set only a stadium record in Utah's thin air, Paul Ereng, the Olympic 800-meter champion, again displayed the prodigious talent he first revealed at last year's NCAA meet. A sophomore at Virginia, Ereng swept into the backstretch of Friday night's 800 final in a familiar position. He was last, more than 10 meters behind the leader, Dieudonne Kwizera of Nebraska.
Ereng evokes memories of Dave Wottle, who won the 1972 Olympic 800 with a furious kick over the final 200. But while Wottle's move was frenzied and ended with a desperate lunge, Ereng's controlled drive to the finish looks as if he knows precisely what he's doing.
Consider last September's Olympic final, in which Ereng, running for his native Kenya, was a forgotten seventh with 400 meters left. Down the backstretch Ereng began to fly. By the time he hit the homestretch, he had woven through the field into fourth place, and when Ereng crossed the finish line first, in 1:43.45, Charlie Jones, calling the race for NBC, mistook him for Nixon Kiprotich, another Kenyan in the field.
With one 200-meter lap to go at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest in March, Ereng was in fifth place. He sprinted around three runners in the next 100 meters, took the lead 30 meters from the finish and drove across the tape in 1:44.84, .07 faster than the previous world indoor mark, set by Sebastian Coe in 1983.
So no one should have been too surprised at how quickly things changed on the backstretch in Provo. Ereng swung wide off the turn and let his momentum carry him out into Lane 4, where he had a clear path. He sprinted past the bunched pack and caught Kwizera as the two of them reached the middle of the last turn. Ereng never faltered, never slowed, as he hit the finish in 1:47.50, .73 ahead of Kwizera.
Afterward, Ereng insisted that he does not hang back to make the race a tad more challenging. Rather, the ploy is a technical necessity. "I have very long legs," says the 6'1", 150-pound Ereng. "I could easily trip on a runner who is in front or behind. I do it to keep out of trouble."
Other than acknowledging that he hopes to break Coe's world outdoor record of 1:41.73, Ereng seemed reluctant to ponder his future. Instead he preferred to savor the race he had just run. After all, as Ereng said, "Winning is not a right; it is a privilege."