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Rounding the final turn of the University of Houston's Robertson Stadium track on Saturday night, Jackie Joyner suddenly came alive. Just 26 days earlier, Joyner had smashed the world heptathlon record during the Goodwill Games in Moscow. Now, motivated by a will to break her own record at the U.S. Olympic Festival, she squared herself to the Texas heat and the last third of the seventh and final event, the 800-meter run. A time of 2:10.62, slower by .60 of a second than she had run in Moscow, would do. "Look down at the track," Joyner thought. "Concentrate on yourself. Go to your arms and move."
As Joyner's star was rising, Carl Lewis was trying to make his own shine again. World records have always eluded Lewis; indeed, his closest call had come in his favorite event at the National Sports Festival, as it was then called, four years ago in Indianapolis, where a long jump estimated at 30 feet was raked away because of a questionable foot-fault call. At the time, Lewis said the leap that would erase Bob Beamon's 18-year-old 29'2�" mark would come. But even though Lewis has won his last 48 long jump competitions, he still carries the mental weight of Beamon's record. "I'm relaxed, I'm at home and I'm in phenomenal shape, as good or better than for the Olympics," Lewis said last week. "This is the ideal position, ideal place, ideal time."
Not this time, though. On Saturday, after Lewis anchored the South team to victory in the Festival's 4 X 100 relay, he iced his left knee, which had been bothering him since mid-July. "If I can walk tomorrow, I'll jump," he said. He could, but he didn't. After a few practice passes he scratched because of a swollen knee. He said afterward that it looked "bleak" for his upcoming European appearances.
First-class performers like Joyner and Lewis wanted to make the Festival's track and field competition, always diminished by late-shows and no-shows, into a show of shows. Coming each non-Olympic year at a crucial time during the lucrative European track season, the 34-sport Festival tries to sell national spirit and a free trip home to top American athletes. The meet and the crowds have gradually gotten bigger since the Festival began in 1978. A record Festival turnout of 16,500 roared for Joyner on Saturday.
The crowds would have been even larger and the spotlight brighter had Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah moved a little faster. Nehemiah, whose 110-meter high hurdles world record of 12.93 seconds has lasted through the four years he was a receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, has had his amateur track status reinstated by the IAAF, the international track and field governing body. But he vacillated about entering the Festival until the extra lane in which he might have run was filled by an old nemesis, Greg Foster.
Some of the hurdlers in Houston viewed Skeets as a fifth wheel. "It's disgusting to have to wait for one man to put glamour back into the hurdles," said Roger Kingdom, the '84 Olympic gold medal winner. "It's an insult to us."
Foster said, "Nehemiah will never go under 13 [seconds] again. Never again. The day [Nehemiah] beats me is the day I don't finish the race." Foster then didn't finish the race because of leg cramps. Tonie Campbell won in a slow 13.57. Nehemiah planned to return to competition this week in Viareggio, Italy.
Joyner wrapped up the four-event first day of the heptathlon that had begun in-auspiciously. Shooting for a 12.75 in the 100-meter hurdles, she finished in 13.16, .31 of a second off her Goodwill time. The temperature, which reportedly reached 126� on the polyurethane track, and the oppressive humidity could have served as handy excuses for Joyner to slip into cruise control, but she continued to push. "The 13.16 happened for a reason," she said. "It happened so I could get the points back in something else. The heptathlon always slaps you back to reality."
Joyner then gathered steam, equaling her personal best in the high jump (6'2"), setting a PB in the shot put (49'10�") and ripping off a heptathlon world best in the 200, with a 22.85. Her first-day point total of 4,148 was three shy of her record Moscow output. She went back to her room, iced her troublesome hamstring and tried not to think too much about the day ahead.
"Press it, press it, press it," Joyner's husband and coach, Bob Kersee, yelled to her from the stands as she took off on her second long jump attempt on Saturday. Joyner charged hard and took off a millimeter from the foul line, hanging long enough not just to press it, but also to fold it and put it away. Her 23'�" flight was another heptathlon world best, and the record chase was now really on. She set yet another PB with a heave of 164'5" in the javelin. After waiting an hour for the start of the 800, Joyner ran laboriously through the first 500 meters. "It was the first time the husband in me was fighting with the coach," said Kersee, having been the former for seven months, the latter for six years. "I wanted to ask her if she was dizzy or tired or what. But the coach was saying, 'Damn, you didn't drag me 7,000 miles back and forth for nothing. So let's get it done.' "