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Kenny Moore
June 25, 1979
With the Olympics foremost in mind, U.S. athletes changed gears and sent records tumbling at the AAU championships
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June 25, 1979

Shifting Into High For Moscow

With the Olympics foremost in mind, U.S. athletes changed gears and sent records tumbling at the AAU championships

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There are 13 months to the Moscow Olympics. It is a middle distance. What once were dreams are now imaginings, ever clearer. Training schedules have gained momentum. Lives have been reordered with sport more nearly at their centers. No more eloquent proof exists than the events at last week's National AAU Track and Field Championships at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., really the last full-scale U.S. championships until next year's Olympic Trials.

As a Moscow-like cold front surged across Southern California, U.S. athletes broke five American records. And time and again, breathless and sick from the effort, they spoke of the next steps: the Pan-American Games, the Soviet pre-Olympic meet in July, the World Cup in August. The AAU meet was the qualifier for all, and the transformations it worked in the athletes were astonishing.

Last year Francie Larrieu dropped out of the 1,500 at the AAUs and didn't run for three months. "I got fat in Redondo Beach," she said. "When I started training again, I had to get baggier shorts." In October she moved to Austin, then Waco, Texas to be near her coach, Preston Davis, who put her on a demanding regimen of running and weight lifting.

In this year's 1,500, wiry and confident once more, she faced an equally rejuvenated Mary Decker, now living in Eugene, Ore. Decker, the more impatient of the two, led their race, with Larrieu off her shoulder, Julie Brown behind them, and defending champion Jan Merrill in fourth. "I didn't want to lead, but it felt like we were walking," said Decker. She increased the pace on every lap, from 68 seconds to 67 to 65 and, with 200 meters to go, had rid herself of all but Larrieu, who then outkicked her by two feet to win in 4:06.6, a meet record.

Two hours later Larrieu fastened herself to Merrill's pace in the 3,000, burst to a one-foot lead at the top of the last stretch, where the two old adversaries fought perhaps the bitterest of their stretch duels, Larrieu again winning, again in a meet-record time (8:53.8). Merrill was a meter back.

"Hard work pays off," Francie said, her jaw still set, her eyes still glinting. "A lot of a last 100 yards like that is mental. Knowing how hard I've trained in the heat and cold and wind of Waco made me tougher."

The men's 1,500 was guaranteed to be a tough race, too, matching as it did Steve Scott, the defending champion, against Villanova's Don Paige, the NCAA 800 and 1,500 titlist, who had beaten Scott in the 800 a week earlier in Berkeley. Paige won his semifinal in 3:42.5 with a fearsome kick. Scott was third in his, in 3:41.2. Paige's race plan was blunt: wait and kick. Scott's called for a mid-race decision. "If the pace is slow," he said, "well, I can adjust it."

Tom Duits of the University of Chicago TC led through a pokey 61.1 400. Then Dick Buerkle took over, but the 800 was turned in 2:01, still slow. Scott's reaction was to move in front with a 56-second third lap and keep right on going. "I kept hearing footsteps," he said later. "I didn't know whose they were."

He might have guessed. With 200 yards to go, and two meters back, Paige looked set to pounce. Out of the last turn, he drove with his powerful arms, the mark of his kick, and closed ground. Then, though his head bobbed with the effort, he stopped closing. "I knew with 80 yards to go I couldn't catch Scott," he said. "That shows me what I've got to work on for next year, the strength to hold that kind of pace and then kick." Scott's time was a meet-record 3:36.4. His last 800 meters was 1:50.4, and his recovery was filled with relief. New Zealand's John Walker, the world-record holder in the mile, who had watched the race enraptured, approached and seized Scott's hand. "A mighty run," he said. "It took guts to do that."

An athlete who gutted it out in the loneliest way possible was Craig Virgin. "I planned for this race for nine months," he said. "I reviewed my whole career and wrote out what I've learned, and set a program based on what is right for me." His goal: the late Steve Prefontaine's American record of 27:43.6 for 10,000 meters set in 1974.

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