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Joe Marshall
June 11, 1979
A look-alike middle-distance runner and a hurdler who looks too good to be true sparkled at the NCAA championships
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June 11, 1979

Seeing Was Believing At Champaign

A look-alike middle-distance runner and a hurdler who looks too good to be true sparkled at the NCAA championships

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The Renaldo Nehemiah Show played Champaign, Ill. last week. To some it was the NCAA Track and Field Championships, but these days Nehemiah is track and field. Already this year the Maryland sophomore had established four indoor high-hurdles records and had twice lowered the outdoor mark, the second time to 13 seconds flat. Yet Nehemiah continues to top his own act. On Friday, after still another breathtaking race, he took his accustomed spot atop the victory stand and meet announcer Frank Zarnowski informed the madly cheering crowd, "Although it was wind-aided, which will negate it for world-record purposes, you have seen the fastest hurdle race run in the history of track—12.91 seconds."

Wind or no wind, no human had ever before been electrically timed in the 110-meter high hurdles in less than 13 seconds. As marvelous as Skeets Nehemiah's performance was, before the five-day meet was over he found himself sharing center stage. On Saturday afternoon, the final day of the championships, Villanova junior Don Paige showed why he is being hailed as America's miler of the future by achieving a brilliant double. He took the 1,500 in 3:39.2, then came back only 35 minutes later to win the 800 in 1:46.18, a personal best. That double hadn't been accomplished in the NCAAs since another Villanova runner, Ron Delany, did it in 1958, the year Paige was two years old.

The heroics of Nehemiah and Paige helped point out that these are the NCAA championships, plural. There is a team title, but the meet also awards national titles to collegians in 19 events. This year it was the individual competitions that far outshone the team battle. (By convenient coincidence the program listed the winner in each event in each of the 57 previous years of the competition, but omitted the team winners.)

For the record, the University of Texas at El Paso won its second team title in the past five years. UTEP scored 64 points, 16 more than runner-up Villanova, having assured itself of victory by rolling up 50 points in four of the six Friday finals, including 10 unexpected first-place points from Jerome Deal, who won the 100-meter dash in 10.19. As Miners go, Deal has two peculiarities. He is an American, and he has an omega, indicative of a fraternity, branded on his left shoulder.

Villanova took second place on the strength of four first-place finishes on Saturday: Paige's double, Nate Cooper's triple jump of 56'1�", which made him America's fourth-best triple jumper in history, and, in the next-to-last event, a meet-record 13:20.63 in the 5,000 by Sydney Maree.

Paige's victory in the 1,500 evoked memories of the Villanova milers who have made that event a Wildcat preserve for more than two decades. They include Delany, Dave Patrick, Marty Liquori and Eamonn Coghlan, who among them won 10 NCAA titles. Despite the Villanova dynasty, the runner Paige is most often compared to is former mile and 1,500-meter world-record holder Jim Ryun of Kansas. On the track the six-foot, 150-pound Paige closely resembles Ryun in everything from posture to floating gait to the way his head waggles just as he starts his powerful kick. The physical resemblance is just as strong. Paige even wears his hair in the Ryun manner.

Off the track, differences are apparent. Ryun was a serious, puritanical sort, often unsure of himself and close-mouthed except in the company of friends; Paige, a Dean's List student in finance, is confident and outgoing. Moments after he won his 800-meter semifinal last Friday, he was up in the stands drinking beer with friends.

"I've been compared to Ryun since I was a senior at Baldwinsville [N.Y.] High," Paige says. "He was one of my idols in those days. When I was being recruited for college, my choice came down to Kansas, Ryun's school, or Villanova. I still think of Ryun as the greatest miler ever. It's ridiculous to compare us in ability. I'm nowhere near his level. Ryun ran 3:55.3 in high school. I'm 22 and I still haven't run that fast."

To date, Paige's fastest mile time is 3:56.26, which he ran a month ago in Philadelphia. That race was particularly noteworthy because Paige beat a field that included Coghlan, Maree, Suleiman Nyambui and Wilson Waigwa. "I'm still four seconds away from 3:52, which is what the best milers run," Paige, who had concentrated on the 800 until this year, points out. "At this level those four seconds are a big jump. That's a step into world class."

Most observers feel he will take that step soon. " Paige has got everything," says Liquori, who was in Champaign as a TV commentator. "Most important, he has speed. To run with today's world-class milers you have to be able to do a half mile in 1:46. Don can. I could never break 1:48. You can build a runner's strength for longer distances, but you can't make him faster. And Don has great explosion. He can blow by you and open a 10-yard lead before you know what's happening, just like Ryun could."

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