Leap Year Feats

Olympic aspirants made strong showings at the Mobil meet
March 09, 1992

Amid the clattering confusion of last Friday night's USA/Mobil Indoor Track & Field Championships, Jackie Joyner-Kersee came flying down the middle of the Madison Square Garden sprint runway, a meter clear of the field and in control of the 60-meter hurdles. While over the third hurdle, she reached for another gear. "You snap your [lead] leg down and you move," she said later. "Your acceleration comes off that snap."

That, at least, is the theory. But the instant Joyner-Kersee tried to put it into practice, she teetered off balance. It looked as if a mouse had skittered beneath her. Her hands flew up, and her eyes grew wide with panic. "I was traveling so fast," she said, "that I couldn't keep up with my legs."

She still reached the finish first, in 8.07, inches ahead of Kim McKenzie and Jackie Humphrey, both of whom clocked 8.09 in a dead heat for second place. Joyner-Kersee emerged from the tunnel with a huge grin. "Bobby's going to have a lot to say about that," she said with a chuckle.

Bobby, of course, is that terribly exacting man who doubles as her coach and husband. Over the past six years Jackie, with Bobby's help, has broken five world records, four in the heptathlon and one in the long jump. If at times it seems that Bobby has more Mr. Hyde than Dr. Jekyll in him, it's because he is seen mostly in the heat of battle, pacing and pleading and scolding and prodding. At the world championships last summer in Tokyo, Bobby took considerable heat for making his wife continue long jumping on an ankle she had twisted earlier in the competition, an injury that left her crumpled and sobbing in the sand. "If it's not broken, we'll tape it," he told Bob Forster, her trainer. "She's taking her last jump."

NBC cameras caught Bobby's order, and he received more than 20 letters from incensed viewers. When he and Jackie returned home, an elderly woman confronted them in the airport in St. Louis. "I thought she wanted Jackie's autograph," Bobby recalls. "But the woman said, 'I know what those initials, B.K., stand for: Bobby Knight. You're the Bobby Knight of track and field. I don't like him, and I don't like you.' "

Joyner-Kersee, who won Friday's long jump with a leap of 22'5¼", was the meet's only double winner. Surprisingly, the long jump and 60-meter hurdles are the first national titles she has won indoors. "I'm happy," she said. "This indoor season is only a stepping-stone to outdoors."

That is the theme in every Olympic year, and it was sounded again and again at the Garden. But while the athletes clearly had one eye on the Olympic trials in June, there were still a number of impressive performances, led by Carl Lewis's in the long jump.

Lewis rightly considers last summer's world championships, in which he set the world record in the 100 meters and surpassed 29 feet in the long jump, to be the finest meet of his life. But what he seems to remember most about that meet is losing the gold medal in the long jump to Mike Powell and watching Powell break Bob Beamon's record. Instead of closing out the 1991 season on the European circuit, Lewis went home to Houston to rest. He was back training by October, earlier than any year since 1985. On Friday night he was an easy winner, leaping 27'4¾". That sounds like a modest mark until you realize that, besides Lewis, only two men have ever jumped farther indoors: Larry Myricks and Robert Emmiyan.

The most spectacular race of the night was the men's 60-meter hurdles. Tony Dees was in Lane 4. Courtney Hawkins was one lane to his left. Hawkins got out fast and narrowly led Dees into the third hurdle, which Hawkins clipped with the back of his left, or trailing, foot. He wobbled to his right, stepping into Dees's lane and hitting Dees's trail leg hard enough to bruise it. Hawkins then creamed the fourth hurdle, crashed down hard on his right hip and slid on his back to the last flight of hurdles. Dees, unfazed, crossed the finish in 7.51, .09 ahead of Renaldo Nehemiah, and then said, "I don't care if this does sound cocky. I think I would have set a world record had I not bumped Courtney."

Dees has been threatening to do something outrageous ever since he hooked up with hurdles guru Wilbur Ross two years ago. Dees has run 100 meters in 10.15, an astonishing time for a hurdler. Yet so far his best time for the 110-meter hurdles is 13.05, fourth fastest in history. However, Ross, who once called himself "the greatest scientist of hurdling and the Michaelangelo of the event," insists that it's just a matter of time before Dees makes better use of that speed in the hurdles.

Speed, in fact, dominates Dees's life. He is, by his own description, a "roller coaster adventurer" who can compare the finer points of roller coasters from Puerto Rico to California. He is also a drag racer who competes up and down Florida's west coast in Gangster, his '67 Chevy Beretta, which covers the quarter mile in slightly less than 10 seconds at a top speed of 142 mph. Dees does a pretty good job of rationalizing this latter hobby as training. "Drag racing is foot-eye coordination," he says. "Track is foot-ear coordination. They enhance each other by refining my reaction time."

The women's 800 included one of track's fastest rising stars—Maria Mutola, a powerful 19-year-old from Mozambique who finished fourth at the '91 world championships in a world junior (19 and under) record of 1:57.63. Mutola is a senior at Springfield (Ore.) High, thanks to an International Olympic Committee program that places athletes from developing countries who wish to train abroad. Mutola had never run on the boards until this year. But that's hardly a daunting challenge for someone who a year ago moved to a country where she knew no one and couldn't speak the language.

Mutola led past 400 in 58.9, but with a lap to go, Meredith Rainey pulled just behind her. When they bumped on the final turn, Rainey lost momentum and Mutola won in 2:01.49. That not only broke the meet record but also eclipsed Mary Slaney's 18-year-old national high school mark. This summer, if Mutola is healthy—she only recently recovered from a stress fracture in her right leg—and gains more racing experience, she should be a favorite in the Olympic 800.

Mutola, whose English is improving rapidly, does not know yet whether she'll compete for a U.S. college or run on the international circuit for money. "She comes from a poor country," says Jeff Fund, whose wife, Margo, is Mutola's high school coach. "It may be more important to make herself financially secure than to get a college degree."

For now, though, Mutola looks forward to returning to the familiar world of outdoor track and the bigger challenges she'll find there this summer.

PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNPart-time drag racer Dees went from zero to 60 in 7.51 seconds, even with a collision.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)