SI Vault
Pat Putnam
July 06, 1970
The name has served as an alias for thousands, but last weekend a real John Smith checked in, the UCLA sophomore nipping Lee Evans in the 440 (left) in an AAU championship notable for surprises
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July 06, 1970

No! Not John Smith!

The name has served as an alias for thousands, but last weekend a real John Smith checked in, the UCLA sophomore nipping Lee Evans in the 440 (left) in an AAU championship notable for surprises

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That same morning at breakfast Mills, who had finished third in defense of his NCAA championship, was feeling the pressure of his world record. "Last year, before I set the record, I was just another unknown," he said. "I was running against Evans and James and if they beat me, well, so what? Nobody expected me to win. Now everybody is looking to climb No. 1—and that's me. At least they think it's me. I think it's Evans. He's the king. Of course, I beat him twice last night. I ran two great races in my dreams. Forty-fours. At least I think I beat him. It was pretty close. But in real life Evans is the man."

Then James stopped asking the time. The call had come for the 440. The fans began to stir. They had already seen some fine performances. The night before George Frenn (see cover) had won the hammer with a throw of 230 feet (he reportedly had a practice throw of 248 feet, 3� feet over the world record, earlier in the week); Ivory Crockett had taken the 100 in 9.3 in a photo finish over Ben Vaughn (who won the 220); and Frank Shorter, the ex-Yalie who is Jack Bacheler's running partner on the Florida Track Club, had won the three-mile in 13:24.2. Shorter almost didn't make it to Bakersfield. While training in Taos, N. Mex., where his parents live, some hoods tried to run over him with a car because he had reported them for attempted rape.

Saturday night Shorter would win the six-mile as well, finishing hand in hand with Bacheler in 27:24. He was voted the meet's outstanding performer, but the three-mile was the greater triumph. Steve Prefontaine, running on the foot he had cut at Des Moines last week, was in contention until the gun lap, then faded to fifth. "All week I've been favoring the leg," he said, "and when I went to kick I felt like someone had hit me with an ax. I'm doing great. Last year as a high school senior I finished fourth. How's that for progress?"

As the 440 field was setting up the blocks, Ralph Mann, who had won the 440 hurdles a few minutes earlier, hustled over to pick up his gold medal and then set another world record getting to where the race would start. "I wouldn't miss this for anything," he said. "It may be the greatest 440 in history. People say the hurdles are the toughest. I say this is. Look at Lee, he's out for blood. And that Mills, he'll be flying scared. I'm sure glad I'm a hurdler."

The runners crouched. Mills turned to John Smith and said, "Nothing to worry about. Just stay on my tail until the last turn and take off. Just run your own race and you'll do fine."

Evans is a close friend of Wyomia Tyus, the former Olympic champion, and her husband, Art Simburg, the Puma shoe representative in the U.S. Last year Smith dropped by the Simburgs' house to pick up some shoes. Evans was there and they became friends. "Lee was sort of an idol to John," says Simburg. "And he asked Lee to help him. Lee said sure. And it was more than just do this, and do that. Lee really took a lot of time with him. It was a deeper relationship than just teacher and pupil. It's something beautiful to watch."

So was the race. Evans flew from the blocks, charging toward what could have been his fifth straight AAU title. "When we come off that last turn," he had said earlier, "I figure Collett will be in the lead and I'll be just two steps behind him. Me and everybody else. And then I'll just blow right past him."

And that's where they were coming off the last turn: Collett, Evans two steps back, Smith. "By then I was out of it," said James. "If I was with them I could have stayed, but I lost contact, and when you lose contact with guys like this, forget it. I felt good. But they were already gone."

Thirty yards from the tape Evans passed Collett. "I saw Wayne good and I knew I had him," he said. "But I never saw Smith until he went past me." Smith saw him. "I wasn't concentrating on anything but running until the last 110 yards," he said. "Then I saw Lee and I just started thinking about lifting those knees and pumping those arms. I figured if the stuff is there, it will come."

It came. Smith caught Evans 10 yards from the tape and beat him to it. They both finished in 45.7. Collett was third in 45.8, then Mills (46.1) and James (46.2).

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