When, like a rising river, an Olympic Games year rolls around and the U.S. starts its track-and-field preparations in earnest there is no predicting where the levee is likely to burst. Before one Olympiad the country might be flooded with enough world-class sprinters to chase down all the jackrabbits in the Southwest. Another time it might be hurdlers, hurdlers enough to staff a corps de ballet. This year, as past weeks have indicated and as last weekend's National AAU Championships at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. confirmed most emphatically, it is going to be milers. Strong milers, fast milers and, most surprisingly, young, young, young milers.
Three weeks earlier, in Compton, Calif. (SI, June 15), eight runners, led by Dyrol Burleson and including a 17-year-old high school junior, had run a mile under four minutes. Last week a similar group of eight, this time led by 21-year-old Tom O'Hara and also including the same 17-year-old high school junior, produced an even faster race at the Olympic equivalent of the mile, 1,500 meters.
For two seasons now O'Hara, freshly graduated from Loyola University in Chicago, has churned his miles—at least outdoors—in Dyrol Burleson's tall and slender shadow. He had lost to him six times in six races. In the AAU race, however, O'Hara resolved to dig himself out of this vexing rut.
"I figured if I was going to beat Burleson this would have to be the race," he said. "I rested all week, I pointed for it, I peaked for it."
Trial heats the day before had reduced the starting field in the 1,500-meter race to nine. At the start O'Hara and Burleson both settled back in the middle of the pack and followed the fast quarter-mile pace (58.3) of a bearded, balding, bespectacled British runner named Peter Keeling. On the backstretch of the third quarter-mile lap O'Hara and Burleson moved up quickly just off the lead, and then, coming into the start of the final go-round, O'Hara jumped in front, pulling Burleson along behind him. They turned into the backstretch and were suddenly challenged by a tall, gangling form in orange—Jim Ryun, the Wichita, Kans. high school boy who looks more like a stork in shorts than the fastest scholastic miler of all time. Young Ryun attempted to push by O'Hara's right shoulder, but the leader slipped his throttle forward a notch and Ryun slipped back. Burleson did not. He came up to O'Hara on the last turn, and as they entered the 80-yard stretch the two were abreast—but with Burleson gaining, inch by tenacious inch, with each long stride. For a moment the race threatened to become a repetition of the pattern that had produced victory for Burleson so many times before, but suddenly there was an abrupt variation. Lowering his head and stretching out his muscular thighs, O'Hara found a new burst of speed and drew away. As he reached the finish, O'Hara's arms were flung wide and his head held high in a gesture of exhilarated triumph.
"I was worried before the race," admitted the winner later, "but after you get beaten so many times you try to stop thinking about it. I was stronger this time and I used better tactics."
"He just walked away from me at the end," said Burleson. "It was a great win for Tom."
O'Hara's time was 3:38.1, a new American record and the fastest 1,500 meters run in the world this year, and if it was a great race for Tom it was also a signal achievement for the seven who followed him across the finish line. Burleson, Jim Grelle in third place and Ryun in fourth also bettered the former record. Even North Carolina's Cary Weisiger, who had held the old record of 3:39.3 but who finished eighth in this race in 3:40.9, had run the equivalent of a 3:58.4 mile.
While the 1,500-meter run was a superb climax, the meet had exciting moments leading up to it. The levee seems to be bursting with talent at several key points. In the pole vault six men breezed over the former championship record of 16 feet 4� inches, set a year ago by Brian Sternberg, and the winner, Fred Hansen of Rice, cleared 17 feet for the third time this year. Randy Matson, 19 years old and just past his freshman year at Texas A&M, won the shotput with a grunt-provoking heave of 64 feet 11 inches, another meet record.
"I quit worrying about trying to finish second to Dallas Long," he said, "and just tried to beat him." He beat Long by a foot and a half and the seemingly ageless Parry O'Brien, who was an Olympic champion when Matson was 7 years old, by almost four feet.