As a grammar-school and sandlot baseball player, I used to dream of playing in the World Series. By my junior year in college, however, my dreams had matured into thoughts of running in the NCAA track and field championships. Even this seemed presumptuous in view of some hard facts. Although in that Olympic year of 1952 I had won conference championships in the mile and 880, I was strictly a minor-league runner—about the equivalent of a Class-B ballplayer. Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. for which I did my running, was one of the big-fish athletic powers in the small-pond Midwest conference. Its large size (it then had an enrollment of about 850 students) gave it a decided advantage in athletics over the real minnows, such as Coe, Monmouth and Ripon.
Despite its apparent Little-League status, though, Carleton had paid its NCAA dues, along with track powers like Kansas, Villanova and Southern California. And to enter the AAU meet—considered equally important for Olympic hopefuls—all an eligible amateur competitor had to do was scrape up a $2 entry fee. Thus in May of 1952, a month before the big event was to be held at the U. of California, I approached my coach, Wally Hass, with the request that I be allowed to hitchhike West and represent our school.
"What event do you want to enter?" he asked.
"What choice do I have?" I asked back.
Since it was an Olympic year, I had quite a choice. The NCAA championships that spring featured a veritable horn of plenty for distance runners: the 10,000 meters, the 5,000 meters and something called the 3,000-meter steeplechase. This last event—not widely known in the U.S. a dozen years ago—included as obstacles four hurdles and a water jump on each of its seven-plus laps. (The water was two and a half feet deep.) I had once been an unsuccessful hurdler in high school, and the steeplechase sounded like fun.
"I think I'll try the steeplechase," I announced bravely. But then, envisioning myself foundering in the water jump, I added, "And just in case that doesn't go too well, why don't you enter me in the 800 and 5,000 meters, too?"
Wally frowned. He may have thought me worth a $2 entry fee, but he wasn't at all sure about increasing the ante to six. Finally he decided to make the investment.
Carleton, in fact, arrived in California three strong. With me came Bobby Johnson of Bismarck, N. Dak. who that year had tied for fourth in our conference 100-yard dash and Broad Jumper Bruce Turner who had the most impressive credentials of all: a 1940 Mercury coupe that transported us to the West Coast.
We planned to compete in the NCAA championships in Berkeley, Calif., then tool south to Long Beach, just outside of Los Angeles, for the National AAU championships the following weekend. If any of us proved lucky enough to place in either of these two meets we would qualify for the final Olympic trials, to be held on the third weekend in the Los Angeles Coliseum. It seemed more likely that we would watch the trials from the stands.
In Berkeley, though, our status allowed us to gape at the competitors from the infield grass. Clutching our programs while seated near the pole-vault pit, we pointed, oohed, aahed and gabbled like old ladies at a Broadway matinee as our heroes paraded past, warming up for their events in Friday's trials. The finals would be held on Saturday.