As time goes by, 1979 may well be remembered as a vintage year for the Penn Relays. Not because Villanova acquired most of the major relay titles in the 85th edition of that venerable meet, last week in Philadelphia. That was predictable, if impressive. It was the baton-carrying heroics of Renaldo Nehemiah, heretofore known primarily as the world's best hurdler, that provided the special bouquet.
The 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Maryland is ranked No. 1 as a hurdler, having broken seven indoor records this past season. Then, three weeks ago at the Bruce Jenner Classic in San Jose, Calif., he also broke Alejandro Casa�as' two-year-old world record of 13.21 in the 110 meter hurdles with a clocking of 13.16. But at Penn last week it was Nehemiah's sprinting, more than his hurdling, that saved the meet from being one of those crowded gatherings that no one remembers very long after the final baton exchange.
The fans who endured the sporadic rain and clammy chill were rewarded with the kind of performances that raise goose bumps, not only when Nehemiah anchored Maryland to a long-sought victory in the shuttle hurdle relay (the Terps' first since 1970), but on both other occasions when he carried a baton.
Nehemiah knocked over three hurdles in his leg of the shuttle race, a 480-yard, four-leg event contested on the AstroTurf infield, which had been too rain-soaked and slippery to allow trial heats on Friday. In contrast to his flawed, if winning, effort on the floor of the ancient stadium, when the action moved onto the Pro-Turf track at Franklin Field, Nehemiah was the epitome of running elegance and power.
In the 4 x 200-meter relay final on Saturday, Nehemiah got the baton about 15 meters behind LSU's Orlando McDaniel, an obviously hopeless position. But with his marvelously smooth acceleration, Nehemiah reeled in McDaniel with inexorable ease. He caught the Tiger runner while still 50 meters from the tape and won the race by two meters with an unofficial clocking of 19.4 for the leg. If Maryland's time on the wet track was an unspectacular 1:23.6 (the meet record is 1:21.4), Nehemiah had been spectacular enough by himself.
Said Maryland Coach Frank Costello, "Did I think that Renaldo could make up the distance on that kid? No. But perhaps I should have known better. You never can count him out. He strikes like a shark."
In the 4 x 400-meter relay, Renaldo struck again. The Terrapins were 20 meters behind favored Villanova and 10 behind Tennessee when he was handed the baton. No one could have blamed the youngster for settling for third in view of his previous labors, which had been tiring. But with his brilliant acceleration, Nehemiah ran down Villanova's highly regarded Tim Dale and Tennessee's flying Antone Blair to win by three meters. His brilliant 44.3 anchor leg gave Maryland a 3:07.2 clocking. Blair's 45.9 took Tennessee to second in 3:07.6.
While Nehemiah was demonstrating his speed, strength and competitive fire, a pair of 17-year-old high school seniors were giving indications that perhaps they too will amaze future Penn Relays fans. Both boys reside in Philadelphia and they are certainly among the best high school track athletes in the nation.
Carlton Young is an angular, 5'11", 155-pound sprinter from Central High School, who has a 3.8 grade point average and an ambition to become a doctor. Rodney Wilson is a 6'1", 169-pound hurdler from John Bartram High, whom Track and Field News ranked just above Young as the No. 1 prep athlete in the U.S. last winter.
That was after Wilson, who holds the state high school record of 13.4 in the 120-yard hurdles, swept through a remarkable indoor season in which he broke seven hurdle records and tied another. Chief among those quality performances were a 7.10 mark for the 60-yard highs and, hand-timed, a 6.9 effort for the same event, which equals Nehemiah's best as a prep athlete at Scotch Plains ( N.J.) High two years before. Wilson has not been defeated by a high school opponent for the past year and a half, and his consistency can be credited to hard work and cool confidence.