After five crisp, chilled days of competition at last week's NCAA Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., Joaquim Cruz was finally facing the 800 meters, the first half of his planned double. Cruz stood erect in Lane 4 early Friday evening, awaiting the starter's call. When it came, he quickly lined up and was off with the gun into the slanting sunshine. Suddenly there was a roar, and it spread in a wave through the Hayward Field stands: "Croooooooz! Croooooooz!"
On the shoulders of the Oregon sophomore were the burdens of team, crowd and history. This night would be pivotal in Oregon's effort to upset Washington State for the men's team title, and thus Cruz, a tall, young Brazilian, absolutely had to win—just as he would have to win Saturday's 1,500 final. Not since Villanova's Don Paige did it in 1979 had anyone achieved an 800-1,500 double at the NCAA outdoors, but Cruz, the world's No. 2-ranked 800 runner in 1983, is of Olympic-medal caliber in both events. Now he ducked in behind Alabama's William Wuyke off the first turn.
Already his strategy had gone awry. An avowed front-runner, Cruz had planned to lead from gun to tape at an even pace—a 1:43 pace, good enough to lower his PR of 1:44.04, run last summer in Oslo. But Wuyke, who had lost two previous races to Cruz by hanging back, was feeding him raw sprint speed in an effort to wear him down. Cruz knew that Wuyke himself would eventually burn out and that passing him early would waste even more precious strength. Cruz and his longtime Brazilian coach, Luiz de Oliveira, were more frustrated than worried. "I knew Wuyke would try something today," said de Oliveira later, "but he played the wrong game."
Facing stiff head winds down the backstretch, Cruz decided to run in Wuyke's wake until the homestretch and then jump him at the first opportunity. At 5'9" and 143 pounds, Wuyke proved a poor shield for the 6'2", 169-pound Cruz. "It was a very bad wind," Cruz would say later, shaking his head. At 400 meters Wuyke began to fade. Cruz shot by. He took 10,117 Duck fans with him. "Croooooooz!"
The race was done. Cruz ran alone to the tape, chest out, working long, powerful strides. He finished in 1:45.10, five yards ahead of Earl Jones of Eastern Michigan. Wuyke faded to fourth, 20 yards back. Though slowed by wind and tactics, Cruz had run the year's fastest 800. "He's a horse" said Arkansas coach John McDonnell with awe.
In truth, the 21-year-old Cruz is surprisingly shy and boyish for one forced to grow up so fast. Born in Brasilia, he was only 18 when he left his widowed mother and five older siblings in September 1981 and moved to the U.S. with de Oliveira and his family. While on a visit to Brazil, Brigham Young coach Clarence Robison had invited de Oliveira to come to Provo and assist the BYU program while working on his master's degree in physical education. "Bring Joaquim along," Robison said. "He can go to school in Provo."
Cruz had set a world junior record for 800 meters (1:44.3) in 1981, but in Provo he struggled both on and off the track. Unable to speak any English, he had difficulty making friends. For the same reason, he could not enroll at BYU. Worst of all, the unmercifully cold weather forced him to train indoors, where the pounding on hard surfaces contributed to the growth of a bone spur on the top of his right foot. He lived in pain.
When the pain in the foot became too intense, Cruz and de Oliveira traveled to Eugene to consult Dr. Stan James, an orthopedic surgeon. Cruz's right leg is slightly shorter than his left, and that disparity had caused both the bone spur and the occasional back pain Joaquim had been experiencing. Cruz and de Oliveira took a liking to both James and Oregon. In January 1982, they moved to Eugene.
"It was a very difficult time for us," says de Oliveira. "Everybody in Provo had been so nice to us—but the weather was just so cold." In Eugene, things were slow to improve. Cruz enrolled in special English courses at the University of Oregon, but three times he failed the equivalency test required for full admission. "They give a tough test here," says Oregon distance runner Jim Hill. "I know Norwegians who've had English since they were five years old and failed it."
Meanwhile, the insertion of a one-centimeter lift in Cruz's right shoe was not easing the pain in his foot. On the advice of James and former Duck distance runner Rudy Chapa, Cruz finally went to Dr. Donald Baxter in Houston in July 1982 and had the spur removed. With his foot in and out of casts, he didn't run a step for the next five months.