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The 400-meter runners boiled out of the turn and into the long run for the tape, and leading them was a third-string fullback from the University of Colorado, running his third 400-meter race outdoors. Ted Woods, a 19-year-old sophomore who is built like a quarter horse and who runs like one, pulled away from the nation's best collegians in the stretch, his thick-muscled, weight lifter's body curiously graceful. His time for the 400 meters, 45.7, set a new National Collegiate championship record and was the best in the world thus far this year.
And so Woods, a relaxed, pleasant youngster, becomes the latest in a long series of track athletes who have blossomed unexpectedly under the pressures of an Olympic year. There were other newcomers in this NCAA meet at Berkeley, but Woods seems the best bet to go on to a gold medal in Rome, just as Glenn Davis did four years ago.
"I didn't expect to get this far," Woods said after the race. "I just went out for track to have something to do between football seasons. I was a half miler in high school, and I've been running mostly sprints this year. I guess I'm pretty surprised."
Dave Mills, the crack quarter miler from Purdue who failed to make the 400-meter finals in this meet, smiled ruefully at Woods. "Lot of other people were, too," he said.
This Saturday, Woods and the other surprising youngsters on the way up meet America's Olympic veterans—some of them just reaching their peak as they fight their way back into top form—in the National AAU championships in Bakersfield, Calif. Although the meet at Berkeley was probably the finest NCAA competition in history, with 10 records broken, collegians will be favored in only five of the 19 events at Bakersfield—the 400 meters, the 800 meters, the 1,500 meters, the high jump and the javelin.
The surest undergraduate winners are John Thomas in the high jump and Dyrol Burleson in the 1,500-meter run. Thomas, who seems to be completely impervious to pressure, jumped an even 7 feet at Berkeley, then had two narrow misses at 7 feet 2 inches. Burleson, running easily, won the 1,500 meters by 20 yards in 3:44.2, roughly equivalent to a 4:02 mile, and his smooth, efficient stride was as unforced at the finish as it was at the start.
Another big collegiate favorite is George Kerr of the University of Illinois, who won the 800 meters at the NCAA meet. Kerr, a Jamaican, will run for the West Indies in the Olympics, but close behind him at Berkeley—in one of the best 800-meter races in track history—came two highly promising Americans, Jerry Siebert of California and Ernie Cunliffe of Stanford. The race presented a classic problem to Cunliffe, a wonderfully persistent runner. Ernie is not blessed with the startling speed that makes Kerr seem like a sprinter running a distance. When he goes against a runner like Kerr, Cunliffe simply cannot afford to rely on his own sprint in the event of a close finish.
Therefore, Cunliffe offered the traditional riposte to a runner with a great finishing drive; he set a fast pace, hoping either to pull far enough ahead of Kerr so that he would be out of reach down the stretch, or, if Kerr stayed with him, to exhaust the Jamaican so that he would not be able to sprint past him. Kerr did follow the pace, running two strides behind Cunliffe, with Siebert two strides behind him. These three left the rest of the field far behind. Despite the withering pace, as they hit the stretch turn of the last lap Kerr pulled wide and raced past Cunliffe. Surprisingly, Siebert went with him, passing Cunliffe, too, and for a shocking moment, seemed strong enough to challenge Kerr down the home stretch. But the Jamaican fought him off and went on to win in 1:46.4, only seven-tenths of a second off the world record and by far the best time run in the world this year.
Cunliffe finished third. "I felt fine," he said after the race. "But I'm tired of making races and not winning them. I wish someone else would set the pace."
"A runner must be much the best in the field to win setting the pace," replied Franz Stampfl, the famed European coach, who now lives in Australia, "and Kerr is the best in the world." From their fine times in this race (1:46.9 and 1:47.6), Siebert and Cunliffe must be rated as the best Americans at this distance, over Tom Murphy, who is outstanding among the postgraduate half milers.