To the 29-year-old Scully, Laird is a radical, to be sure, but in a way a freedom fighter. Scully works. He once raised hogs on his farm in Big Island, Va. but now has a sporting-goods store, teaches and coaches. "It's hard for Ron," he says. "It really is. Because you have to train up to 130 miles a week and just in time alone it takes almost twice as long as running. None of the Mexicans have jobs; they just train eight hours a day, every day. Once in the morning, then some weight work, then again in the afternoon. The thing that makes Laird different is that he lets himself go, then comes back. Go, back, go, back. He gets too far out of shape. That's why he's had so many injuries lately."
For Laird to make the 1980 Olympic team he will have to contend with Scully as well as a formidable group of young and developing race walkers, most notably former distance runner Neal Pyke. But Laird has faced challenges before. "Nobody in this country would beat me if I put my mind into it and got back into it hard," he says after his workout, pulling on a jacket and heading to the campus gym for some weight work and sit-ups. "I have the ability to train hard and not break down and to get into shape when I need to." Thoreau once said that almost no one understood the art of walking. Thoreau never encountered Ron Laird, the guardian of a treasure that few value. Why does he do it? Because he does not like the sound of the phrase, Ron Laird, former race walker.
A few days later Laird is standing in line at the checkout counter in a supermarket. His meager finances dwindling, he made the decision to enter the food-stamp program for the first time in his life earlier this year. His letters are crumpled in office wastebaskets, no rich girls are in sight and his body is telling him it is getting old. Laird indifferently pulls his groceries from his shopping cart and lines them up on the conveyor belt. One package is a box of Wheaties; on the front is a picture of Bruce Jenner, the Olympic decathlon champion, his former teammate at Montreal. Jenner is a celebrity who can make $3,000 just for showing up with a pen at a shopping center.
"I know him," says Laird to no one in particular.
The checkout girl looks up suspiciously. Ron Laird stares at Bruce Jenner's picture and sighs.