From Soquel, a quiet, fog-enshrouded village near the northern shore of California's Monterey Bay, a two-lane relic known as the Old San Jose Road snakes up into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ten miles out of town three driveways branch off and disappear into towering redwoods: two head unremarkably uphill; the other, potholed, a little wider than a car, threads downward, clinging to the side of the hill, with a sheer drop of 200 feet on the right. In a clearing at the end of the trail is a narrow one-story wooden house. Here in this isolated eyrie live two of the biggest mesomorphs of U.S. track and field—6'1", 242-pound Al Feuerbach, the American shotput champion, and 6'4", 253-pound Mac Wilkins, the American champion, world-record holder and 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the discus.
At a time when the superstars of sport seem mainly interested in finding the best way to invest their first million, Feuerbach and Wilkins are anachronisms. They seek little other than self-improvement. "The goal," says Feuerbach, "is to gain as many feet and inches as I can possibly squeeze out of my body. The main concern is how well I can do, not how I compare to the rest of the world." Says Wilkins, "My motivation is to throw the discus as far as I can, to come as close to my ultimate potential as possible."
When Feuerbach went house-hunting in October of 1976, he had two requirements: there had to be an open space to throw the shot and a garage or carport suitable for weight training. As for living accommodations, Feuerbach would glance at the interior of a house only if it were convenient. "It was a matter of priorities," "explains Wilkins, who asked to rent a bedroom even before the house was bought. "Some people need a sunken bathtub. Some need a landing area for a shot."
After they moved in, Feuerbach and Wilkins carpeted, paneled, wallpapered and reshingled, but not before completing the shotput area and the weight room. The shot circle is in front of the house, at the far end of the spot where the driveway enters the property. A porch provides a perfect vantage point to critique the owner's throws. The landing area, which is filled with dirt and gravel, lies 15 yards beyond the porch, in the shade of some madrona trees.
At the opposite end of the house, a concrete floor was laid and a carport enclosed to form the weight room, which has as its centerpiece a $2,500 Schnell Trainer, a German weight machine. On one wall are two six-by-sixes running from floor to ceiling with pegs at various heights to hold the barbell used in bench presses and squats. The bar is bent from being loaded with as much as 700 pounds.
Feuerbach, who held the world record of 71'7" from May 1973 to February 1976, knows there are whispers that he is over the hill. "It bothers me that people think that I've lost it and that I'm struggling," he says, while admitting that he has been able to top 70 feet only once in the past three years. "I knew why I was throwing the way I did. Now I feel almost like I used to before I was successful. I have something to prove."
Starting in November, after a month-long layoff from competition, Feuerbach had Wilkins film his throwing for eight straight weeks. The edited film is a revelation. At the start, Feuerbach throws just 57 feet, and the pain and effort as a result of the layoff are obvious. At the finish, he is obviously larger and throwing 68 feet with ease.
At the end of April, at the San Jose Invitational, Feuerbach threw 69'1�", his best in competition since 1976. In practice he hit 70'4". In early May he came within 10 pounds of his best weightlifts ever. Then, on May 17, he strained his back while working out. For weeks he had to exercise patience more than muscles. Still, his training had built his strength and technique to such a degree that on June 10 in Los Angeles, even with a cautious delivery—one with very little body movement—he won the national AAU title with a throw of 67'1�".
Wilkins, who is 27, three years younger than Feuerbach, also seeks vindication, but his is more ideological than physical. No one argues when Big Mac says, "When I've got my throwing together, I'm competing against myself, because no one can beat me." But Wilkins has chosen to use his prowess as a platform to attack America's track and field Establishment. Specifically, he has criticized the AAU and the U.S. Olympic Committee for failing to recognize the importance of medical research into human performance and for not providing adequate coaching and support for postgraduate athletes.
"I hate to see human resources wasted," declares Wilkins. "The people who run our amateur organizations have an outdated view of what it takes to achieve maximum potential. They are very petty, jealous people trying to maintain the status quo, which means their power, but they are not interested in promoting efficient athletic achievement."