"Look! There's Jim Golliday!" Bruce exclaimed, pointing to the husky Negro who was then the world's fastest human. Golliday, from Northwestern, was already being touted as the Olympic 100-meter champion. We also easily spotted Parry O'Brien, Walt Davis, George Rhoden, Ollie Matson, Wes Santee and other immortals of the time.
I strolled over to one corner of the track and gazed down into the shallow pit that would form the water jump on each lap of the steeplechase. It was the first one I had ever seen and it looked ominous. As far as the hurdles were concerned, our school did not have any that adjusted to the three-foot height of the conventional steeplechase hurdles. I had been practicing with high school hurdles that were three inches higher. This would make me tougher, I rationalized—sort of like sprinting up sand dunes as training for racing in the flat.
The stadium loudspeaker cleared its throat noisily and crackled an announcement. "The first contestant in the broad jump will be Robert Johnson of Carleton." The field events were scheduled to start before the running events, and the eyes of the few spectators who had drifted into the stadium early swung to focus on a young man in a bright-yellow uniform at the end of the broad jump runway. Actually, our school colors were maize and blue, but the maize always came out looking yellow. Bob had once won the North Dakota state high school low-hurdle championship, though, being short, he had to take eight instead of seven steps between hurdles. He leaned forward and tugged nervously at the glasses taped to the sides of his head before beginning his run toward the broad-jump pit. Dirt flew from his spikes as he picked up speed. Then his stride began to falter as he realized he had miscalculated his steps. His takeoff foot slammed down a good foot in front of the board and he jumped half-heartedly into the pit. "Measure it," ordered an official.
A few minutes later the loudspeaker blared, " Johnson's first jump was 11 feet, four inches." It was not an auspicious start for our assault on the NCAA championships.
A little later I added to the legend of Carleton athletic prowess in a heat of the 800 meters. I really didn't consider myself a middle-distance runner, but having come all the way out to the West Coast, I wanted to get my money's worth by running in every event in which I had the slightest chance. Unintimidated by the fine runners around me, I sprinted into last place at the start and held that position throughout the race. Ted Wheeler of Iowa won in 1:53.8.
Bobby Johnson was painlessly eliminated in the 100-meter heats. Golliday, as expected, had the fastest time—10.4 seconds. Then we settled down to watch the 10,000 meters—the only finals race of the day and the only distance race I had failed to enter. I sadly noted that seven runners had started the race and one of these dropped out after a mile and a half. The sixth-place medal went to a runner from the U. of Michigan who practically walked across the line—and in a time even I could have matched. "I guess I'm in the wrong events," I dolefully remarked to my companions.
I was the only one of our triumvirate to make the finals on Saturday. This was solely because no heats were necessary in the long-distance races. Bob and Bruce had tied for 17th in the broad jump with identical leaps of 20 feet, 6? inches. They did not finish last, however. That honor went to an athlete from Fresno State, who at least had not come halfway across the nation to do it.
When the starter called us to the line for the 3,000-meter steeplechase, I tried to appear casual—not realizing that half the other runners had never competed in the event either and were likewise trying to look casual. The gun fired. At the very first water jump I encountered a steeplechase tradition: all the photographers and all the curiosity seekers crowd around the water jump, presumably anticipating that one of the contestants will trip on the barrier, plummet into the water and drown.
Laughter rippled through the crowd as we sprang over the barrier and splashed through the water on the first lap. "Hey, did you bring your water wings?" some jokester yelled. I vowed that even if I finished far in the rear I would at least maintain my dignity at the water jump. Careful throughout, I finished in ninth place but was only four seconds behind the runner who, because he was the sixth-finishing American, qualified for the Olympic trials. This was, for me, a kind of triumph. The winner was Bob McMullen of San Jose State. I read later in the papers that he had constructed his own water barrier to practice for the event. Maybe if I had done the same, I rationalized, I could at least have made the trials.
An hour later, to make sure I got my money's worth, I ran the 5,000 meters, finishing last. My name preceded that of NCAA two-mile champion Don McEwan, however. McEwan failed to finish.