After a full year of watching Renaldo Nehemiah compete, Frank Costello, his coach at the University of Maryland, is still in something of a state of shock. Last year, as a freshman, Nehemiah was clipping tenths and hundredths off his personal best times in training with such regularity that Costello couldn't believe his stopwatch. Then in the fourth weekend of the indoor season, at New York's Millrose Games, Nehemiah convinced his coach that his watch was accurate by setting a world record of 7.07 in the 60-yard hurdles.
Last week, in only his second major indoor meet of the season, the National Invitational at Maryland, Nehemiah lowered the record to 7.02. So perhaps Nehemiah, who has a reputation for being self-contained and polite, could be excused for suddenly sounding a bit like one might expect a world-class hurdler to sound these days. "I didn't think I was going that fast," he said. "Right now I am only performing at about 75% efficiency. I still haven't run the perfect race."
Nehemiah has been unrelenting in his quest for perfection, and it is paying off. His world-record race at Maryland was his eighth consecutive major indoor victory. During the early part of last year's outdoor season he lost a number of races, including two to UCLA's Greg Foster, but then he beat Foster in the AAU championships. This coming outdoor season he is going all out for the 110-meter world record of 13.21 held by Alejandro Casa�as of Cuba. "This year he'll produce 13.2s many times," predicts Costello, "and I foresee 13.1s on several occasions. His outdoor world record will come in a biggie, a big international meet." Nehemiah agrees. "I need top competition to run my best race." he says. There should be plenty of opportunity for 19-year-old Nehemiah to get the competition he wants this year, with the Pan-American Games in July in Puerto Rico and the World Cup in Montreal the last week in August.
Nehemiah came to choose the hurdles, the most technically demanding of all races, for much the same reason he took up the saxophone when he was 11. "The trumpet has three valves." he says, "and on a trombone you just slide up and down. It didn't seem like anything. But all those keys on a saxophone were a challenge. I thought if I could master them, it would be a real uplift for me." Nehemiah learned to finger the keys of the alto sax so well that he won a scholarship to a summer music school in the seventh grade and performed as a soloist in his high school band.
Nehemiah's running talent showed itself even earlier. He earned his nickname "Skeets" before he could walk, crawling around so quickly that, says his father, Earl, "He seemed to be running." Earl Nehemiah saw to it that his sons, Renaldo and Dion, and his daughter Lisa all engaged in sports at an early age. Renaldo has a huge trophy he got in 1970 for scoring 13 touchdowns in one season while playing on a recreational-league team in his hometown, Scotch Plains, N.J.
The basement of the small, white, wooden house in which Nehemiah grew up always resembled a well-stocked gym. Much of Earl Nehemiah's earnings were spent on barbells, bowling balls, punching bags, boxing gloves, baseball mitts, footballs, baseballs, basketballs and shoes. "Everything we asked for, we got," says Dion, who is 18, "and Dad always bought the best. When everybody else was wearing $10 sneakers, Skeets already had a pair of $30 running shoes."
"I started the boys in football when "Skeets was 10 and Dion nine," says Earl. "Skeets would go to practice even when it was raining. Even when I told him there would be no practice, he would go. For him it was never too cold, too hot or too wet. When we went down to Grandmother's house in South Carolina, he would stay out in the hot sun all day shooting baskets."
Earl is a technician for Economy Bookbinders. "I'm not a college man," he says, "and this was the type of job where you can put in a lot of overtime." To make ends meet, he also took a night job as a gas-station attendant. "The boys would come every night and throw the football under the lights while I was waiting on cars," he says.
"We had wrestling and boxing matches," says Dion, "and I would wind up locked in the bathroom, or Skeets would be on his back. We both loved to win, but he beat me most of the time. In wrestling and boxing he was stronger, in football faster, and in basketball taller."
Six years ago, when Earl felt Lisa needed a course in self-defense, he enrolled all three of his children in a karate class. Dion eventually became an instructor with a black-belt rating. However, Renaldo quickly abandoned karate for track, even though he had been the most promising student of the three. "The very first time Skeets attended," says Lisa, "the first time he hit a board, he broke it in half."