Renaldo began to think about becoming a hurdler when he was in the seventh grade, but he was only 5'3", too short to handle the 3'3" high school barriers. Two years later and three inches taller, he ran the hurdles for the first time on a dare. "I liked them right away," he says. "I got banged up a few times, but I was determined. My coach told me one day I would be state champion."
He became just that in 1976 when he was a junior at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High. He also broke the New Jersey state record with a 13.6 for 120 yards. Nehemiah's senior year was nothing short of sensational. By then he had grown to six feet and 158 pounds, "with a very high crotch," says Jean Poquette, his high school coach. During the indoor season he tied four national high school records, including a hand-timed 6.9 for 60 yards over high school hurdles and a 7.2 over standard hurdles, which are three inches higher. Then, outdoors, in April, he twice tied the national high school record of 13.2 for 120 yards. On Memorial Day 1977 at the Eastern States High School Championships he bettered that clocking three times, skimming over the hurdles in 13.0 in a heat, 13.1 in the semifinals and finishing up with 12.9 in the finals. It was the first time any hurdler had been timed in under 13 seconds for 120 yards or 110 meters, over high school or standard hurdles.
Nehemiah feels that on that day he truly became a hurdler. "In the middle of the race," he recalls, "I suddenly became aware of my speed. It was more like a sprint. I wanted the 12.9. Then, believe it or not, I hit the seventh hurdle. I thought, 'I've had it.' "
Nehemiah's decision to enroll at Maryland in the fall of 1977 to study accounting prompted a rare argument in the Nehemiah household. Earl and Sheila, whom Renaldo's father married five years ago after his first wife died, favored USC, but Renaldo wanted to stay close to home. Besides, Bobby Calhoun, a sprinter and high school buddy, was already at Maryland, and so was Greg Robertson, a 13.6 hurdler with the nickname "Fly."
Just as Renaldo had hoped, the two star hurdlers have become close friends and fierce competitors. "Even in practice we can't ever relax," says Nehemiah. Robertson, who is as effervescent as Nehemiah is solemn, adds, "Before he came, I could stay out all night and still win in a dual meet the next day. Now I have to be more serious."
According to Costello, Nehemiah's hurdling technique verges on perfection, which is all the more amazing considering that Nehemiah honed it at home, hurdling over his bed while watching himself in a mirror. "Hurdling comes very natural to Skeets," says Costello. "He doesn't have to make his body do it. He concentrates on the tremendous snap in his lead leg."
"It's not the power in the legs that counts," says Nehemiah. "I have more power in my upper body. That's where you need it. The legs go where the arms take them."
Last year Costello often gave in to the temptation to use Nehemiah in as many as four events in an outdoor meet. After all, he was not only the Terps' best hurdler but also their best sprinter and quarter-miler. At the NCAA championships, he had to run a semifinal of the 400-meter relay and a hurdle semifinal in a span of 20 minutes. Seventy minutes later, in the hurdles final, he barely lost to a fresh Greg Foster, who set an American record of 13.22.
After Nehemiah got his revenge on Foster in the AAUs, he told the press that he might consider transferring. "He never said to me that I was running him in too many races," says Costello. "Maybe it was a communication problem and he couldn't say no. This year we have an agreement that he will speak up. Listen, he was great in high school; he is greater now. So we must be doing something right."
After the AAUs, Nehemiah went to Europe to chase after the world record. He competed in 13 races in six countries in about two months and lost only once. On that occasion, he admits, he underestimated his competition in a slow, inconsequential race. His best time on the tour was the 13.23 he ran at Zurich during a whipping rainstorm. That was his fifth junior world record of the year. "I would have gotten Casa�as' record if it hadn't rained," says Nehemiah.