Was ever a man better suited metaphorically to running the hurdles than Greg Foster? Possibly Job, though Foster would run a close second. Life keeps dragging out barriers and setting them in Foster's path. He was narrowly upset by Roger Kingdom in the 1984 Olympics, finishing second in Los Angeles. Then he failed to make the 1988 team because of a broken left arm.
Foster has broken other bones, crashed in major races and served a three-month suspension for using stimulants, which he insists he unwittingly ingested last year in an 89-cent pack of vitamins. Worst of all, in 1985 a car accident took the lives of his mother, an aunt, a cousin and a nephew. "I know that's the worst thing that will happen in my life," he says simply.
But Foster has proved to be resilient. "He has persistence," says Harrison Dillard, the 1952 Olympic 110-meter hurdles champion. "He keeps coming back from injury. He's going to be the one to show us how long a hurdler can go."
At last Friday night's USA/Mobil Indoor Track & Field Championships in Madison Square Garden, Foster demonstrated emphatically that at 32 he is still exploring his limits. Indeed, he blew out of the blocks so fast in the 60-meter hurdles that, despite his clobbering the first hurdle with his trail leg, the race was over by the second. His time, 7.49, put him a meter ahead of Jack Pierce.
Foster emerged from the tunnel near the finish line screaming, "Yeah," and pumping his right fist. It was his sixth national indoor title. Only Dillard, with eight, has more.
Foster rued that collision with the first hurdle when he realized he had missed his world record by only .13. "I had to come back from zero," Foster said. "I wish Bobby [his adviser, Kersee] were here. He would have been amazed."
At 6'3", 188 pounds, Foster is an intimidating presence. He is a fitness fanatic who runs stairs in a 25-pound vest and is adding a weight room to his house in Chino Hills, east of Los Angeles. Standing next to him, you feel muscular potential ready to leap to life. "I never sit still," Foster says. "I can't sit still. I'm up at six every day doing something."
When he broke his foot last winter, Foster was given a choice: He could have an operation and wear a cast for two weeks, or he could skip the operation and wear a cast for six months. That was no choice. "I can't be immobilized at all," he says. He chose the operation.
Foster was the oldest national champ at Friday's 103rd nationals. Not only did the meet crown new ones and determine who would represent the U.S. at the IAAF World Indoor Track and Field Championships in Seville, Spain, March 8 through 10, but it was also the high point of what has been a rather flat indoor season. Despite a crowd that seemed much smaller than the 11,483 announced by Garden officials, it was an outstanding track meet.
The men's and women's miles were stirring spectacles, but in wildly different ways. The men's was little more than a gutsy time trial for Noureddine Morceli of Algeria. After second and third 440s of 56.8 and 57.2 had brought Morceli to the three-quarter mark in 2:52.9, the crowd rose, anticipating a run at Eamonn Coghlan's world indoor record of 3:49.78. But Morceli, 21, didn't hold that pace. He finished in 3:52.99.
The women's mile, by contrast, was slow, which suited Suzy Favor just fine. With half a lap to go, she tried to squeeze past world-record holder Doina Melinte of Romania on the inside. When that didn't work, Favor, 22, slowed and swung wide around the final turn. Her lunge at the finish nipped Melinte. Favor's winning time of 4:37.55 was slow compared with Melinte's world record of 4:17.14, but because she had never before beaten Melinte at the mile, the victory was sweet.
Michael Johnson had a much easier time of it in the men's 400. Johnson, 23, who last year became the first person ever to rank first in the world in both the 200 and 400 meters, sat comfortably on Chip Jenkins's shoulder until one lap remained. He then shot past Jenkins to finish in 46.70. "I basically set out to have some fun, make some money and run some meets," said Johnson, who will skip Seville to concentrate on getting ready for the outdoor season.
Friday's best event took place 10 hours earlier and 70 miles away, at Princeton University's Jadwin Gym. Lance Deal, 29, of Eugene, Ore., threw the 35-pound weight 79'3¾", breaking by 9¼" the world indoor best Tore Johnsen of Norway set seven years ago. Remarkably, Deal's average for the six-throw series was 78'2¾", a mark bettered only by Johnsen's world indoor best.
Diane Dixon, 26, has reduced her rivals in the women's 400 to the role of observers, though it's doubtful they're happy about that. She complains that her event doesn't get the attention it deserves, and she's probably right. But it's her own fault: She has taken the suspense out of her races.
Dixon came to the Garden hoping to win a record 10th indoor national title. "I actually regurgitated before I ran," she said. "I've never done that before."
Dixon poured all that tension into the first turn and pulled five meters ahead. No one got close to her, and she finished in 52.38. "Every straightaway I heard Freddie," said Dixon, referring to Fred Thompson, the 57-year-old lawyer from Brooklyn who coaches the all-female Atoms Track Club, to which she belongs. "Out of all the people in the arena, I can always hear Freddie's voice."
For a time, however, she refused to heed it. Dixon grew up in the tough Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. She was—and is—tough and sassy. Dixon was 12 when she was lucky enough to cross paths with Thompson. "He raised me," she says. "He makes you want to run track. He also prepares you for the outside world." She won her first indoor TAC title in 1981, as a 16-year-old high school junior.
But in 1987 she and Thompson parted company. "The trust we had was broken," says Dixon.
"Diane did nothing wrong," says Thompson. "But I felt that the people around her were not good." One of them, a former boyfriend, is serving 10 years for selling cocaine.
Life's big changes, which most people measure in years, Dixon measured in months. Last winter, on the advice of Bill Cosby, she moved to Xenia, Ohio, to train with Josh Culbreath and the men's team at Central State University. She returned home after three months. Another mentor, George Steinbrenner, suggested she train in Tampa. Dixon stayed there for six months, during which she got married. Her marriage lasted five months. In October she again moved back to Brooklyn. "I missed the garbage trucks and gunfire," she says.
What she really missed was Thompson. She is now home with a vengeance. She lives in the building next to Thompson's, right across the street from the Pratt Institute, where the Atoms work out. She has shocked even Thompson by contemplating graduate school. (She is an advertising graduate of Baruch College in New York.) "I have to go," says Dixon of her thoughts about furthering her education. "My only regret in life is that Freddie didn't see me graduate from college."