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WOMEN'S TRIALS ENTER A NEW ERA
Kenny Moore
July 05, 1976
This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to American women's track," gasped Madeline Manning Jackson shortly after becoming the first U.S. woman to scrape under two minutes for 800 meters. She spoke not of her own performance, but of the Olympic Committee's decision to let the women run these Trials right next to the men, finally affording them the luxury of a decent track and a vociferous crowd.
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July 05, 1976

Women's Trials Enter A New Era

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This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to American women's track," gasped Madeline Manning Jackson shortly after becoming the first U.S. woman to scrape under two minutes for 800 meters. She spoke not of her own performance, but of the Olympic Committee's decision to let the women run these Trials right next to the men, finally affording them the luxury of a decent track and a vociferous crowd.

The meet saw American records broken or threatened in nearly every event, yet such is the state of the art in this country that few American women have medal chances. Even Jackson's seem faint, because her 1:59.8 is far off the new world record of 1:56 by Russia's Valentina Gerasimova (indeed, it would have placed Jackson seventh in an East German tune-up meet). The strongest hope is javelin thrower Kathy Schmidt, who won by nearly 22 feet with 213'5". She will go to Montreal favored to improve on her Munich bronze. Brenda More-head, a shy Tennessee State sophomore, came within .04 second of the world record in the 100 meters with her 11.08, and won the 200 as well in a wind-aided 22.49. "She'll be competitive," said her gruff, fatherly coach, Ed Temple, who said the same thing about Wilma Rudolph and Wyomia Tyus. And an ingenuous North Carolina high-schooler, Kathy McMillan, equaled her American record with a wind-aided 22'3" in the long jump, saying, "I just run and jump, and seem to get about a foot better every year." If she can squeeze a year's improvement into one month, she may beat the East Germans.

Another serious medal contender is Jane Frederick, who won the pentathlon (100-meter hurdles, shotput, high jump, long jump and 200 meters) by 205 points. The day afterward, she sat eating strawberries with Gale Fitzgerald and Marilyn King, the two women she had teamed with in Munich. All were exulting at having made it back on the 1976 team as well. " Munich really changed me," said Frederick. "We competed before the terror. We competed in the beauty of that Olympics." She is an imposing presence, nearly six feet tall and splendidly proportioned, with an expressive, open face that went far away as she spoke, thinking back. "Before Munich I knew I had potential but I hadn't understood how it was to compete, the pressure of an Olympics, the kind of mental tenacity you need. I knew I wanted that, to be good at it. I realized what was necessary, that I couldn't compromise in preparation."

So Frederick postponed her graduate studies, traveled to Italy for technique and weight training, then came home to train under Sam Adams, the noted multi-event coach from Santa Barbara. She has a fierce loyalty to the pentathlon as a meritorious entity: "In 1973 I was on the AAU tour of Europe and Africa and I felt like extra baggage—the feeling of the officials and a lot of the athletes was that the pentathlon was something you did if you couldn't make it in the individual events. I found it degrading. I decided the pentathlon would never be extra baggage again. And neither would I."

Her American record of 4,732 earlier this year saw to that, thrusting her into the medal picture in Montreal. An excellent hurdler (she won the AAU 100-meter hurdles in 13.29), she declined to try for the team in that event. "It is one way to make clear to those officials that I'm in this for the value of the total pentathlon," she said. "Besides, I can't imagine hurdling being so important that I would bump somebody off the team just to do it. I might be bumping somebody young, who'd be as inspired by the Olympic experience as I was."

Jan Merrill was absent from these scenes. As is her habit, the intensely private 20-year-old from Waterford, Conn. distanced herself from her competitors, even in winning her semifinal of the 1,500 in 4:15.1, some 30 yards ahead of the field. Standing along the backstretch, taking her times for every 100 meters, was her coach, Norm Higgins, a slender, gray-haired man with a broken nose and hawkish eye.

"See how she is enjoying it?" he said as she passed for the final time. "That's all I ever tell her to do in a race. Just have fun."

In her training, however, it seems that Merrill sometimes leaves the fun behind. "Norm Higgins is a very hard, a very austere man," said Dr. Ken Foreman of Seattle Pacific, who coached the redoubtable Doris Brown. "Very few athletes could meet the demands he makes." Foreman, the U.S. women's Pan-American Games assistant coach last year, was shocked at the amount of high-intensity speed training Higgins used to prepare Merrill for Mexico City. "I simply couldn't believe the things she had to do on the track—like 50 100-meter intervals, and then a 3,000-meter trial." Yet Merrill won the Pan-Am 1,500 easily.

Francie Larrieu didn't arrive from Long Beach until the day before the 1,500 preliminaries, to remove herself as long as possible from the Trials' emotionally charged atmosphere—and so missed seeing husband Mark Lutz make the team in the 200. "But that's not pressure," she said, smiling after winning her heat. "That's incentive."

Larrieu, since 1969 the best U.S. woman miler, this year faced in Merrill her first serious challenge. She responded by signing up a new coach, Preston Davis of Long Beach State, once a 3:39.9 1,500-meter runner out of Texas. "Francie's American record of 4:08.5 is seven seconds off the world record," he said before Sunday's race, "so she has to improve that much to be competitive. Even then you don't know. So we're thinking sub-four. To reach that kind of peak you have to build a base of stamina that will allow you to carry your speed farther, and you have to be confident that you can do this very difficult thing. Specifically, I want her to be self-reliant when I'm not there."

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