Oct. 16, 1989
Oct. 16, 1989

Table of Contents
Oct. 16, 1989

American League Playoffs
National League Playoffs
Dee Dowis
The Patricks
Tim Harris
First Person
Point After


A smashing couple on and off the track, David and Sandra Patrick have made hurdling history

Let us look, for as long as modesty permits, at the warmest moment of last month's cold and damp World Cup track meet in Barcelona. Shortly after being presented with his gold medal for winning the 400-meter hurdles, David Patrick huddled in the gloom and watched as his wife, Sandra Farmer-Patrick, ran down Olympic silver medalist Tatyana Ledovskaya in the stretch to win her 400-meter hurdles race. The Patricks of Pflugerville, Texas, thus joined the Zatopeks, Emil and Dana, of Zlin, Czechoslovakia, as the only married couples ever to win individual gold medals at the same international championship. And the Patricks are the first to win them in the same event.

This is an article from the Oct. 16, 1989 issue Original Layout

This called for a celebration. Patrick turned to the official escorting him. "Let me go out and give her a quick kiss on her victory lap," he pleaded Now, Patrick is a warm and earnest man, certainly not the type to deliberately mislead an official, so he breaks into a great wide grin as he recalls what followed. "It just so happened it took a little longer than that," he says.

First they kissed, lingeringly. Then they hugged. Then they jogged past a section full of boisterous Catalonian separatists and were showered with tiny red-and-yellow-striped flags. Sandra tossed her bouquet into the crowd, which went bananas. David picked up a flag and waved it over his head. The crowd went bananas all over again.

Who but Scrooge would begrudge the Patricks this very public display of affection? After all, this has been a year of redemption after the disappointments of last summer, when neither of them made the Olympic team. "I'm proud of the way she's conducted her life," says Fred Thompson, the director of the Colgate Women's Games, in which Farmer-Patrick began her running career at age 13. "Especially last year. That could have been the catastrophe of her life."

Sandra's nightmare began the day after David missed the Olympic team by a mere .03 of a second. His failure became all the more poignant when he mistakenly jogged the lap of honor accorded the three athletes who qualify for the Olympics in each event. But contrary to much of what has been written, Patrick was not disappointed. Despite the handicap of running in Lane 1, his time was 47.75, the fastest of his life.

"I had told myself that if I ran 47.7, I'd be happy, and I was," he says. "But I felt for my parents. They were there, and they knew I hadn't made the team."

Sandra's frustration was harder to cope with. What befell her was an incredible concatenation of if-only's:

•If only she had decided to run for her native Jamaica, as she had at both the 1984 Olympics (she finished eighth) and the '87 World Championships (fourth), instead of trying to steal a berth from a "true" American, as some people complained she was doing. But, says Farmer-Patrick, "they didn't realize that I'd grown up in the United States. I was raised eating, living and drinking as an American. I wanted to represent the United States."

•If only it hadn't rained so hard in Indianapolis the day of her semifinal; the officials, deciding Lane 1 was too wet to be used, moved everyone out a lane, but Farmer-Patrick says no one informed her of the change. She stepped onto the track with the number 5 on her hip, assuming she was still to run in Lane 5, the lane she had been assigned the night before. She was the last runner to take her mark, and she settled into the only vacant lane, Lane 6, thinking it was Lane 5.

•If only she hadn't noticed that the number on the track didn't correspond to the number on her hip. When Farmer-Patrick rounded the first turn and hit the backstretch, she looked down and saw, in the baffling mess of crisscrossing lines, a huge painted 5, but it wasn't painted in her lane. Horrified, she veered from Lane 6 into Lane 5 and ran the backstretch there. Only after jumping three hurdles on the back-stretch did she hear Schowonda Williams, who would eventually win the final, shout, "Sandy, you're in my lane!" She veered back into Lane 6.

In spite of all this, Farmer-Patrick crossed the finish line first. Several athletes and coaches protested, citing the rule that says a hurdler who jumps a hurdle other than his own shall be disqualified. Even though she had gained no advantage by changing lanes on the straightaway and had impeded no one, Farmer-Patrick was disqualified. Her appeal was turned down.

She says, "I think they said, 'She can just go back and run for Jamaica.' But I had given up my spot by running in the U.S. trials. My name was slandered in the Jamaican papers. They said, 'She betrayed her country.' "

She felt she owed her federation an explanation, so she sent a telegram, which cost her $150, to Kingston. She never received an answer. "No one wanted to claim me," she says. "I was a woman without a country."

This year, both she and David have gathered strength from the disappointments of last year. "We told each other we would make them pay for the next four years," says David, working very hard to sound vengeful. "We vowed to each other we would stay on top."

In fact, Revenge of the Pa tricks has played to rapturous crowds all summer, from Houston to Barcelona to New Delhi. Each won the 400 hurdles at the two most important meets of the year, the TAC championships, in June, and the World Cup, in September. In between those events David was inconsistent. Sandra, however, has had a virtually perfect year. She is undefeated in 14 races in her specialty, has lowered the U.S. record twice—to 53.37—and now has run the six fastest times ever by an American in her event. Had the track in Barcelona been dry, she might well have broken the world record, too.

Possessed of radically divergent energy levels, the Patricks are an intriguing pair, proof that opposites not only attract but can sustain and enrich each other. "We have totally different personalities," Sandra says. "I'm an extrovert, he's an introvert. I panic about anything. You could tell him the house was burning down and he'd say, 'Oh, really?' "

David, 29, is a quiet man with a profound interest in the world around him. When he is abroad, he goes out of his way to find English-language newspapers. He is given more to warm smiles than to raucous laughter. Sandra, 27, laughs in several octaves. She's a flamboyant dresser who, like her close friend Florence Griffith Joyner, uses her person as a canvas.

Their family backgrounds are also strikingly different. Sandra's childhood was Dickensian. Her heritage is so tangled, the roles of her guardians so unclear, that she must get out paper and pencil and diagram a family tree to explain the relationships. This much is certain: She was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on Aug. 18, 1962, and shortly thereafter, her mother left. "She gave me away," says Sandra. "She didn't have time for me." Sandra lived with two different women in Kingston before coming to Brooklyn at the age of 11 to be raised as an only child by her great-aunt, Veta Farmer, whom she refers to as "my mom in New York."

David's family, on the other hand, is straightforward and dependable. "He comes from a strongly knit family," says Sandra. "The whole town he's from [Centralia, Ill.] is all Patricks. They're real, real close. Good people, loving people. Watching them, I would just sit there and say, 'God, this is so great. I wish I had a family like this.' "

Sandra even envied her college roommate for having that priceless thing, a sister. Lucky David, of course, has an identical twin, Mark, a living, breathing reminder that the world is not an alien place.

Much of what Sandra knows about the first few years of her life has come from her great-aunt Veta. "She told me that my mother was more like the partying type," Sandra says. "She went away to party and left me behind. She didn't come back to get me."

Sandra last saw her mother two years ago. "I don't dislike her," she says. "But we don't share any emotions. She's never once said she loved me. She doesn't send me Christmas cards or anything. But I was upset when she didn't come to my wedding. The only family member at my wedding was my mom in New York. I had no blood family."

Sandra spent much of her early childhood in the care of a woman whose precise relationship to her is unclear. "She was supposed to be an aunt," says Sandra, scanning the family tree she has mapped out in front of her. "But she doesn't tie in up here."

Life in Kingston, which was hard for most people, was made doubly so for Sandra by her "aunt." "I was like her stepchild," she says. "If I wanted a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich after school, I'd have to beg one of her sons to sneak it for me. My mom in New York would send clothes, and my aunt wouldn't give them to me. I was running around with sores all over my toes. That's where I got a lot of my strength from, running wild the first seven or eight years of my life, building up natural strength."

At age 10 Sandra was passed to her grandmother. Behind the grandmother's house was a one-room outbuilding, which sheltered eight or nine of the 13 grandchildren who lived with her. "We didn't live in a hut or anything," says Sandra. "But to this day, when I go back to Jamaica, I think, No way all of us fit in this little room here," she says. "I remember three or four of us sleeping in one bed."

When Sandra was 11, Veta Farmer filed the necessary papers and brought her to Brooklyn to live. After the intoxicating chaos of life with 12 other children in Kingston, life with her great-aunt, who was a strict Pentecostalist, meant a radical change.

"You couldn't wear pants, couldn't go to the movies," Sandra says. "You couldn't have a boyfriend. You couldn't wear makeup or jewelry. You were just basic. You were there to serve the Lord, and that was it."

Since Sandra couldn't wear pants, tiny running shorts were definitely out. When she began running, she wore little skirts to practices at PS. 152.

Her natural strength showed from the start. Unlike her husband, who graduated from Centralia High with a respectable best of 37.8 in the 330 hurdles, Farmer-Patrick is one of those runners haunted by a brilliant past. However fast she runs, she can never do more than meet the expectations created by her prodigious early career. She was a 14-year-old high school freshman running her second 400-meter hurdles race when she clocked 64.81 seconds and finished sixth in open competition at the 1977 Penn Relays. Two months later, she won the U.S. junior (14 to 18) title in 58.90. That was a national record for freshmen and for 14-year-olds that stands today. The time was, and is, also faster than the record for sophomores and 15-year-olds. Sandra ended the 1977 season ranked fifth in the U.S.

For the next three years her progress was desultory. By the time she graduated from Brooklyn's Saint Angela Hall Academy in 1980, Sandra had lowered her best only slightly, to 58.31. It seemed at times she was sinking back into the passivity of her childhood, letting things happen rather than making them happen. After procrastinating for months, she chose the University of Arizona over her other pursuers by reciting "eeny, meeney, miney, mo" over three letters of intent. She spent only a year at Arizona before transferring to Cal State-Los Angeles. It was toward the end of her sophomore year there that she met Patrick, a student at the University of Tennessee who was handsome and solid as a rock.

She first noticed him in the spring of 1983 at the Mount SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif. "I made a bet I was going to get this man," she says. "You make a bet, you have to pursue it. It just so happened that I did and we fell in love."

Actually, it wasn't quite that easy. As a suitor, Patrick suffered from an exasperating case of honesty. Truth serum runs in the man's veins. Sandra suggested they have dinner when David was in San Jose for a track meet, and he was truthful to a fault. "I'd love to," he said, "but if your plans change and you can't make it, let me know. There's someone else who wants to see me."

Sandra's plans didn't change, and that first date turned out to be quite a success. She says, "Just from the conversation I think we knew we wanted to be together. He said he was ready to fall in love. I said, 'O.K.' "

For three years David lived in Knoxville, Tenn., and Sandra in Los Angeles. But in 1986, after graduating from Cal State-L.A., Sandra moved to Knoxville to be with him. There they struggled to fit training into lunch hours while working long days as salespeople at Steinberg's, an appliance store. They quit their jobs after a year and have been full-time athletes ever since. "That was the year I got serious," Sandra says.

It was also the year she met Loren Seagrave, the imaginative young coach, then at LSU, who has guided many of the top U.S. sprinters and hurdlers. Not long after she adopted Seagrave's seemingly endless repertoire of arcane drills, Sandra placed fourth in the World Championships in 54.38, her best time yet. David, alas, had to be satisfied with the fastest nonqualifying time ever (48.56).

The Patricks were married on Jan. 2, 1988, in Knoxville, before a Who's Who of the track world. Florence Griffith Joyner was the matron of honor, and Al Joyner was also a member of the wedding. Ralph Boston, the 1960 Olympic long jump champion, was there, as were long jumper Jason Grimes and 400-meter runner Michael Franks. Three months later, the Patricks moved to Texas to be near David's coach, Stan Huntsman, who had moved from Tennessee to the University of Texas. At home in Pflugerville, a suburb of Austin, they entertain compulsively, enticing friends with promises of barbecue, David's specialty, or Jamaican akee and saltfish, which is Sandra's.

Seagrave believes Farmer-Patrick can break Marina Stepanova's world record of 52.94. But to do so she'll have to work on her speed and technique. That means running the 200 and the 400 and also the 100-meter hurdles. "Next year, the emphasis will be on expanding her speed capacity," he says. "If we do, she'll run very fast." How fast? Seagrave mentions numbers like 52.50.

This has been the first year of the Patricks' four-year plan. If all goes well, they will be back in Barcelona in 1992.

PHOTOTONY DUFFY/ALLSPORT USAPHOTOTIM DEFRISCO/ALLSPORT USASandra's TAC championships victory was the first of her 14 straight wins this season.PHOTORICH CLARKSONDavid paired this TAC win with one at the World Cup.PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNThinking David had made the Olympic team, Sandra rejoiced, but he missed it by .03.