That's because he made it. His heel came around. James suggested to Nike that the company concoct a special built-up shoe for his right foot: He passed his English test.
Cruz put on the green and yellow of Oregon, becoming the most spectacular walk-on there since Otis Davis, also a converted basketball player, won the 1960 Olympic 400 meters. When it came to the question of who would guide Cruz, Oregon coach Bill Dellinger, the Olympic bronze medalist at 5,000 meters in 1964, insisted on no pride of place. "Hey," says Dellinger, "it was unique. We didn't choose him. He and Luiz chose Oregon. There's no way I'm going to say, 'Well, you can come but you have to be coached by me.' " Though he is still very much in school, Cruz has decided not to run for the Oregon team next season. His training schedule is geared for a late summer peak, and NCAA rules don't allow him to have a shoe contract, which is what he needs to move his mother and sisters into a better house in Brasilia and get treatment for a 5-year-old nephew who is deaf. Faced with this, Dellinger was equally understanding: "People wail to me that we only had him for two years, but I say this man did more in two years here than anyone else in a lifetime."
Cruz's training in 1983 was designed simply to return him to full strength. Still, he won the NCAA 800 in 1:44.91.
"I took 45 days to rest, and to think, too," he says. "It was time to take something seriously, to be somebody. And I knew that, but when I thought of it, I was afraid. I worried about celebrity and the press, about being used. I weighed it all. And just before I started working out. I swore to myself, 'O.K., this is what I want and am going to get.' Then I worked very carefully not to get hurt. When you want something in the way I did, nothing will put you off. I had bad days, when I was crying as I did my workouts, but I kept in my mind what it was for. I learned that track isn't hard. Training is hard."
In the fall, de Oliveira had him begin with two-hour sessions of constant running interspersed with jumping and gymnastics. In the winter he did long-distance runs, weightlifting, mountain running, intervals, fartlek, uphills, speed drills, tempo runs and circuit training (a series of exercises done at stations beside a trail, sprinting from one station to the next, which Cruz associates with nausea).
De Oliveira has advanced the state of his art by looking hard at the essence of middle-distance running: An athlete burns more oxygen during a race than he can take in. He has devised some fiendish ways to "defend against oxygen debt," as he puts it. The most dramatic and dizzying is training by holding your breath.
"When you do 1:14 pace for 600 meters and you have 200 to run," he says, addressing maybe three people on the planet, because that is 1:39 pace for the 800, "You are going to be in lactic acid distress. This gets you so you don't feel destroyed by it." Cruz holds his breath for distances up to 75 meters in his circuits, and runs 300-meter intervals (in 40 seconds each) without breathing for the last 40 meters.
Cruz arrived at the Olympics in the best shape of his life. The 800 field was one of the most powerful and complete of the Games, unaffected by the boycott. Yet Cruz won his heat and quarterfinal in the extravagant times of 1:45.66 and 1:44.84. In the semifinal, Edwin Koech of Kenya tore ahead and passed the 400 in a flaming 49.6. "I heard '49' and thought. 'A lot of people are going to die here,' " said Cruz. " 'In the last 100 I'll have more left.' "
He did and rolled past Koech to win in 1:43.82, his best ever. Behind him, defending champion Steve Ovett of Great Britain had to dive across the line just to qualify in fourth, in 1:44.81.
Coe, who had won his semifinal in a far less taxing 1:45.51, had watched Cruz's gaudy run. "He's either in supreme physical condition or just a little foolhardy," he said. "If he's both, we'd better all watch out tomorrow."