The realism-in-reading campaign asks you to take three deep breaths. Now one more, and hold it in. O.K., don't breathe again until you get to the end of the next two paragraphs. Pace yourself right and it will take 44 seconds. There will be a payoff.
Meet Harry (Butch) Reynolds Jr. He's 23 and a senior-to-be at Ohio State, has eyes as green as chestnut leaves (what do you think a buckeye is, anyway?), a gentle voice and manner, and the fastest time for 400 meters (44.10) since 1968. Lee Evans's record of 43.86 was set at the Olympics in the thin air of Mexico City's 7,350-foot elevation, and Reynolds's time, run at sea level, is judged its equal.
The revelation of the track season, Reynolds is Ohio through and through, representing a sporting strain that runs from Jesse Owens to Jack Nicklaus. You haven't heard of Reynolds before because no one has. He and destiny have conspired to spring him upon us whole, without the warning of a promising high school career. (Hang tough, now. Involuntary spasms of your stomach muscles are perfectly normal.) This week Reynolds, who won both the NCAA and TAC nationals, takes his mark for the biggest quarter mile of his life, at the World Championships in Rome. He's approaching it as he has the rest of this spectacular, instructive year, with refreshing curiosity. "Hey. no matter how it comes out," he says, "I'm going to be happy."
O.K., now that things are starting to go black, breathe. The reward you should feel is a heightened appreciation of Reynolds's craft.
Even if you fainted halfway through that prologue to the man, you had only the mildest hint of how it feels to be a quarter-miler in the stretch. But at least you can extend some sympathy to Reynolds and opponents, who reach the end of 400 meters only by building up one hell of an oxygen debt.
The shared pain of trying to sprint about 100 meters farther than man was engineered to go serves as an initiation right. The quarter builds a brotherhood.
In June, after Reynolds won the TAC meet in San Jose with a 44.46 in both his semi and the final, he got a call from Tommie Smith, the 1968 Olympic 200-meter champion who once held the 440-yard world record at 44.8 (equal to a 44.5 for 400 meters). Smith told Reynolds he can run 43.6. "Just believe it's there, Butch," Smith said. "It's a tough race."
"I already believe," Reynolds replied, "but it's nice to have somebody understand how hard it is."
"Always the same," said his father, Harry Sr. "In high school he hated the 400. He always said no. But then he always ran it."
Reynolds grew up in Akron, where his father, Harry Sr., built tires and then worked as a maintenance man at General Tire for 24 years before the company closed the factory in 1982. The senior Reynolds played high school basketball in Akron with Gus Johnson in the late 1950s, but because of his marriage as a teenager to Butch's mother, Catherine, and the birth of Butch's older sister, Sheila, now 29, he never took his game to college. So you know what his sons, Butch and Jeff, 21, got.