It's as if John-Boy himself had come down from Walton's Mountain, leaving his books and journal behind, to run the mile indoors like no man ever has. His stride is too long and his elbows flap, but with unexpected suddenness and remarkable ease Tony Waldrop has become America's best indoor miler.
As the University of North Carolina senior prepared for the Atlantic Coast Conference championships last Saturday night, a string of amazing performances—and a long line of bewildered competitors—trailed behind him. In one month he had crisscrossed the continent and run sub-four-minute miles in Richmond, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Diego. Five of them in one month, when no one else had ever accomplished four in one season. His times broke meet records held by Tom O'Hara, Marty Liquori, Kip Keino, Jim Beatty and Jim Ryun. A week ago last Sunday in San Diego he ran 3:55 to shatter O'Hara's 10-year-old indoor world record of 3:56.4, which Ryun equaled in 1971. He did all this against fields that included such runners as Liquori, Dave Wottle and Steve Prefontaine. "I ran a perfect race and he ran a better one," Liquori said at the Millrose Games. Three days later, beaten again by Waldrop in Philadelphia, Liquori said, "I think I'm running him wrong."
Along the way, however, Waldrop became aware of changes in his own life, alterations that were not for the better. He thought he was losing touch with the things that really mattered to him. "I haven't read a good novel lately or gone to a campus play or a concert," he said early last week. "I've really fallen behind in the journal I keep about the things I see around me. The travel, the attention and the pressure to do well have made me very tired. I'm not ready to run Saturday at all."
None of this was what Waldrop intended when he left his hometown of Columbus in mountainous western North Carolina to attend college on an academic scholarship. He had been a good high school runner in the half mile and mile, drawing the interest of half a dozen college recruiters, but he was more inclined to academic pursuits. His visions went beyond Polk County, where generations of Waldrops had lived out their lives. His parents had once picked cotton; now his father commutes from Columbus to a nearby Firestone plant across the state line in Spartanburg, S.C. and his mother is a receptionist in an optometrist's office. "They'd like me to move to Spartanburg," Hunter Waldrop said recently as a CBS camera crew interviewed Tony in the family's front yard, "but I can't think of a better place than right here where my family has always been." Danny, the oldest of three brothers, is in medical school. Neal, the youngest, stayed home after high school, leaning, like his father, to mechanical interests. Neal races and repairs motorcycles for a Honda dealer and the trophies he has brought home are as proudly displayed in the family's living room as any of Tony's medals.
"I'd rather have Tony as Tony than anything else," his father says. "I can't see why anyone would get out there and work the way he has at anything like track, but he has and we're proud of him."
"I tell you what I'm more proud of than anything else," his mother said as she sat on the front-porch steps. "Whenever he and his brothers are together they act like three long-lost friends. Now that's really something to be proud of."
Tony's roommate and teammate at North Carolina, Mike Garcia, shares Waldrop's fondness for the historical rooms of Wilson Library and for the small town of Bynum near Chapel Hill, which has been bypassed by time and change. "We wanted to do a book about it," Garcia says. "We would go over in the afternoons and I would take pictures and Tony would make notes to write about what we saw."
While Garcia joins these expeditions into a simpler, easier-to-understand past, he is perplexed by Waldrop's reaction to his success. "It's affected other people more than it has him," Garcia says. "As far as he's concerned the records have just happened. He just wants to travel around and meet people and have a good time. He feels you can be a success just by running to the best of your ability and understanding what is happening on the track. But what I can't understand is—well, he's done more than that. He's won and he's set records, yet to him it's no big deal. After San Diego he told me it wasn't as exciting as he thought it could be. I wonder what it takes to turn him on?"
Whatever it takes, it has not happened yet. "I'm not convinced that I'm really as good as it may seem," Waldrop says. "This may just be temporary. I'm not that confident about my ability yet because I know there are guys who can beat me. Maybe if this had happened in the outdoor season, where the competition is greater and the runners are at their best, it would mean more. I know that right now I just haven't felt the impact. Maybe someday I'll look back and it will mean a lot to me, I'll think it was nice, but not yet."
The man who comes closest to understanding Waldrop is his coach, Joe Hilton. "The kid doesn't realize how good he is," Hilton says. "He doesn't know yet what is customary for him, and how much better he can be. It comes a whole lot easier to him than to other people and he's still very much within his capacity. I said he would run a 3:55 indoors and he did, not because we trained him for it or because we planned it, but because I knew that's how good he could be. If he stays with it after graduation he'll be under 3:50 outdoors someday and I hope he'll be the first. It won't come this year because it's too soon, but he'll do well outdoors and later on he'll be considered the greatest, like I always said he would."