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A great leap forward for Arkansas
Craig Neff
March 18, 1985
Led by silver-shoed Mike Conley, Arkansas soared to the NCAA title
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March 18, 1985

A Great Leap Forward For Arkansas

Led by silver-shoed Mike Conley, Arkansas soared to the NCAA title

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Maybe it's just coincidence, but great leapers from Nureyev to Superman to Mercury have all favored funny-looking footgear. For his part, University of Arkansas senior Mike Conley likes to lace on a pair of specially designed silver spikes each time he triple-jumps. The shoes match the color of the medal Conley won in the triple jump at last summer's Olympic Games in Los Angeles. "I'm proud of my silver medal, and I want to show that I am," he says. But his clenched-teeth smile says otherwise: He really wanted gold shoes.

It has nagged at Conley, the world's No. 1-ranked triple jumper last year despite his Olympic defeat, that he fell three inches short of Al Joyner's winning jump of 56'7�" in L.A. He won't cite as an excuse the sprained left ankle that hindered him at the Games—though he admits that his chronically tender ankles are the reason for his new silver footwear, which has extra-thick padding around the ankle. "Last year I got light shoes for speed," he says. "This year I got sturdy shoes for support."

They obviously fit well, for what Conley turned in last Saturday at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships in Syracuse was one of the sturdier performances in the 21-year history of the meet. He was the meet's dominant figure, successfully defending his NCAA titles in the triple jump (55'11�") and long jump (25'10�"), and helping Arkansas win its second straight team title, a crushing victory over runner-up Tennessee (70 points to 29). Conley was all over the infield, giving technical tips to teammates and cheering them on. "He's more happy when you win than when he wins," said the Razorbacks' Irish-born miler, Paul Donovan, winner of the 1,500. "You'd think he'd be all snobby, being so good—but he's just one of the lads."

Conley leaped into the '85 indoor season headlong, having strengthened his stringy 6-foot, 166-pound frame with offseason weight work that increased his squat lift from 220 to 500 pounds. He won all four of his pre- NCAA triple-jump competitions, coming within one-half inch of Willie Banks's world indoor record with a 57'1" jump at the USA/ Mobil Indoor Championships last month in New York. At that meet he also won the national long-jump title with a 26'11�" leap, the best indoor effort of his life. "A horse, that's what I call him," says Arkansas coach John McDonnell.

"Hypertensive—that's what I used to call him," said Conley's mother, Ora, who had driven from Chicago with her husband, Alex, to watch the meet. "He was always moving around, always doing something." As a high school senior, Conley won Illinois state titles in the long jump, triple jump and 100 and 200 meters; he also high-jumped 6'8" and was a star wide receiver and all-state guard.

On Saturday, it seemed that not only Conley but also the whole Arkansas team was operating on a higher plane. Fourteen Razorbacks scored points, giving the 46-year-old McDonnell, formerly of County Mayo, Ireland, his third NCAA title in 12 months (two in indoor track and field, one in cross-country). McDonnell, who came to the U.S. in 1964 and to Arkansas in 1972, has taken the Razorbacks from the bottom of the Southwest Conference to the top of the nation. He has built a worldwide reputation for the school; his squad includes two Britons, a Bahamian, a Norwegian, a Canadian and, as one might expect, two Irishmen. " Arkansas is a lot like home," winks Donovan. "Plenty of green land...and funny accents."

While Conley was winning the men's triple jump, the women's triple was being contested for the first time in an NCAA indoor championship. And faster than you could say Belo Horizonte, Brazil, that city's favorite daughter, a Florida State sophomore named Esmeralda Garcia, who had never triple-jumped until a month ago, twice broke the women's indoor mark (raising it to 44'4") to win the event as the unheralded Lady Seminoles edged out Texas 34-32. Garcia, who represented Brazil in the 100 and long jump at Los Angeles but didn't make the finals in either event, didn't wear silver spikes at the NCAAs, but she and the other Lady Seminoles leaped for joy at their first indoor team title.

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