Shortly before they nailed down the starting blocks for the 85th annual National AAU Track and Field Championships last week, the outlook was decidedly grim. Savaged by the Olympics and ravaged by the pros, the dwindled talent pool was further withered by the interminable NCAA-AAU crossfire. World-class athletes were threatening to boycott the meet and it seemed certain, with a third-rate team likely to bear its colors, that the U.S. would be made into mincemeat by the U.S.S.R. in Minsk next month. Better we should start a home-and-home series with Albania.
The pessimism was premature. After three days of slightly astonishing competition at Bakersfield, Calif., the U.S. got itself one of its youngest and most promising teams. The long and short of it is new faces, specifically those of 6'2" Steve Williams, a 19-year-old sprinter raised in the Bronx and glad of it, and 5'9" Rick Wohlhuter, a 24-year-old Chicago insurance man who has discovered that tendon stretching is good policy. Of the 13 champions who were on hand to defend the titles they won in 1972, an even dozen were dethroned. Only John Craft, who set a meet record with a 55'8�" triple jump, repeated.
Williams did not break any records but he was the Most Valuable Athlete, winning both sprints for the first time since Ray Norton turned the trick in the 1960 nationals. He also accomplished the feat with soul, style, lousy starts and great finishes.
In both the 100- and 220-yard finals, Williams broke from the blocks late and slightly shaky before running down the field from far back. On Friday night, after four false starts had left everyone chilled and antsy, he caught Herb Washington in the last three yards, coolly glancing back over his left shoulder as he powered through the tape in 9.4 seconds. Earlier that evening Williams had run 9.2 in a semifinal, a time which more accurately reflects his speed. In the 220 on Saturday, despite a knee that almost buckled under him on the turn, he overtook Mark Lutz of Kansas in 20.4.
"I ran a very sloppy race," Williams said after the 100 to a bunch of nonbelievers. "My form was sloppy, my start was terrible. After all those false starts, we were standing there in the cold, tightening up. When I wanted to make my pop, it wouldn't come. That's why it took me so long to catch the rest of the field. I usually do it by the 60-yard mark, but this time it was more like 85.
"I was born in New York, lived in Texas and now I'm in San Diego," he went on. "I think I'm a better competitor coming from New York, because you are constantly competing in New York. Like winning it coming from that far back, not giving up. I learned that walking through the streets in New York where you have to move so you don't get knocked down. Getting on the subway is a fight. Shopping in a department store is a fight. To me, L.A. is a little country town."
A sophomore at San Diego State, where he majors in English and journalism, Williams runs with a quaint, bobbing-and-weaving, shoulder-rolling style that seems to have been choreographed by Bo Diddley. However, it got him a 9.1 at the Fresno Relays last month, which equals the world record.
"This kid could be running an 8.8," said Alex Woodley, coach of the Philadelphia Pioneer Club. "The problem is his start, and I think it's because of those long legs of his and the trouble he has with the blocks. He doesn't feel comfortable with his feet all scrunched up together that way. As a result, he gets almost no explosive force out of the blocks. In the 220 he might as well not even use them. If he had blocks that would allow him to start with his feet wide apart, he'd run 8.8 because that's really what he's doing now in the last 80 yards or so."
The main question that Williams has been answering since Fresno is whether or not he will run against Valery Borzov in Russia. It is now obvious that Williams will be there.
"People ask me more often whether I'd like to run against Borzov than what my age is," he says. "They try to make me the prominent sprinter. It's flattering. It seems like they are looking for the dominant sprinter they needed last year. I'm not that yet. You build up a consistency. My start is so bad.... Maybe I sell myself short, but I don't think I have it yet. But I have the tools to get it."