"Just two minutes," Suzy Favor told herself as she jogged to the start of the women's 800-meter final last Friday evening at the NCAA track and field championships in Durham, N.C. "Just two minutes."
The Wisconsin senior had set herself an ambitious—and historic—task in this, her final NCAA track meet. She would try to win not only her fourth straight 1,500-meter title but the 800 crown as well. No woman had ever won those two events in the same championships, and Favor knew that the next two minutes—give or take a second or so—would be the toughest part of her week's work. Two lanes to her left stood Harvard senior Meredith Rainey, the defending champion.
"I was nervous because there aren't that many times when I know someone is going to be close to me in a race," said Favor later. "And I knew Meredith was going to be very close. But I was excited, too, because I knew it would be fast. And I wanted the double."
Doubles—achieved or attempted—highlighted the four balmy days and nights of competition on the brick-red track in Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium. LSU senior Esther Jones, picking up where former Tiger Dawn Sowell left off last year, anchored her school's winning 4 x 100 relay, and then won the 100 and 200. Sheila Hudson, a senior at Cal, repeated her performance of last March at the NCAA indoor meet, winning both the long jump and triple jump. Hudson closed out her collegiate career by twice breaking her American record in the triple, finishing at 46'¾".
Among the men, Leroy Burrell, a senior at Houston, entered the meet as the favorite in both the 100 and the long jump. But on Wednesday the barrel-chested Burrell, who trains with a former Houston sprinter-long jumper of note, Carl Lewis, never got his steps right and failed to qualify for the long jump final. With his mentor Lewis in the stands, Burrell roared back in the 100, winning the final on Saturday evening with a wind-aided, but still impressive, 9.94. Another headliner was sophomore Patrik Boden of Karlstad, Sweden, and the University of Texas. Boden, who set the world record in the javelin last March with a toss of 292'4", won his second collegiate title on Friday with a throw of 261'10".
In the team competition LSU completed a double double, winning the men's and women's titles for the second straight year. For the LSU women, it was the fourth outdoor championship in a row.
Aiming for her fourth 1,500 title, Favor was hoping to join a select group. Only three athletes—Oregon's Steve Prefontaine in the 5,000, UTEP's Suleiman Nyambui in the 10,000 and Washington State's Scott Neilsen in the hammer throw—had ever won four times in the same event. No woman had ever done it. Yet Favor, whose 5'3", 105-pound build and prancing running style belie her strength, is accustomed to collecting titles. She began running while still in grade school, in her hometown of Stevens Point, Wis. At Stevens Point Area High, where her life-sized portrait hangs in the field house, she won 10 state championships in track and cross-country. She also won the national junior 1,500 title three times. In four years at Wisconsin, from which she will graduate next year with a degree in graphic arts, Favor won 23 Big Ten championships. Going into Durham, she had not lost a collegiate race in 27 months and, with Vicki Huber, a recent Villanova graduate, she shared the NCAA women's record of seven career titles.
Those who know her say Favor's success is due to more than just talent. Her attributes include focus, determination and mental toughness. "She is very robust mentally," says Peter Tegen, coach of the Wisconsin women. Tegen, a native of East Germany, puts great emphasis on running tough and running smart. Every Wednesday his team drills specifically on tactics that emphasize pacing and positioning on the track.
Favor would need every edge against Rainey. In contrast to Favor, Rainey—who graduates this week from Harvard with a cum laude degree in social studies—did not run in high school. An age-group star with the Atoms Track Club in Brooklyn, Rainey gave up the sport at the high school level for theater, basketball and volleyball at St. Ann's School. She returned to running midway through her freshman year at Harvard, after walking into coach Frank Haggerty's office and asking if she could work out with the team.
"My afternoons seemed empty," says Rainey. "And besides, I wanted to lose some weight."
Two years later Rainey was national champion in the 800. This season she had been faster than ever, winning the 400 meters in 51.54 at the Heptagonal (Ivy League) championships in early May; in that meet she also finished third in the 100, second in the 200, and first in the 800. Thus the NCAA 800 final promised to be a dramatic matchup of Rainey's speed and Favor's strength.
"If it weren't that I'm running in it," said Rainey the day before the race, "I'd love to watch it."
Just before the start on Friday evening, as they peeled off their warmups, the two runners wished each other luck.
"Remember," said Favor to Rainey, "this is supposed to be fun."
For the nearly 7,000 fans spread around the big horseshoe of the stadium, it was.
At the gun, Favor, her blonde ponytail bobbing behind her, sprinted for the lead and got it, with Rainey right beside her on the outside. The pace slowed over the second 200 meters, as Favor and Rainey remained at the head of a tightly bunched pack. Then, at the last 300 meters, Favor accelerated, carrying Rainey with her in full flight down the back-stretch. The crowd rose as one, audibly drawing in its breath. Shoulder to shoulder, Favor and Rainey covered the third 200 in a startling 28.5, opening a 10-meter gap on the rest of the field.
Just past the 600 mark, Rainey tried to go by. Favor held her off.
"I told myself, There are only 30 seconds to go," Favor would recall.
Around the turn and down the homestretch they came. Favor's strength prevailed, and she began to pull away. She crossed the line in 1:59.11, a meet record, a personal best and the fastest 800 time in the world this year. Rainey, utterly spent, was nipped at the end by Jasmin Jones of Tennessee, who had determinedly run her own race, well off the pace, before kicking at the finish.
Once past the finish, with the crowd's cheers washing over her, Favor jogged to the edge of the track and reached into the stands to greet her parents, Conrad and Rachel, who were resplendent in Badger red and white. Then she turned and walked back to Rainey, who stood bent over just past the finish line. The two runners embraced.
"In the last 100 I was exhausted. I felt like I wasn't running," said Favor. "But there's something inside that makes you go."
"She's fearless," said Rainey. "That's the difference between Suzy and someone who just wins sometimes."
The next evening's 1,500 amounted to business as usual. Taking the lead at 800 meters, Favor easily held off a challenge by Jones—whose two runner-up finishes to Favor gave her a pretty fair double of her own—before pulling away to win in 4:08.26. That mark broke the meet record of 4:09.85 that Favor had set in 1987.
"She can still be a lot better," said Tegen at the end of the meet, as he watched Favor in the infield with her teammates, holding Wisconsin's third-place team trophy aloft. "She has not had the opportunity to run the perfect race yet."
Maybe. But until she does, Friday night's will do just fine.