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With 400 meters gone in the Olympic Trials 1,500-meter race, Steve Scott strained to catch—through the wind in his ears—the split times being called to the runners. He was in second place, behind Craig Masback, and he had a plan. If the first quarter were :59 or :60, he meant to take the lead and run 57s for the next two laps, hitting the three-quarter mile in 2:54. A sustained sprint from there would bring him near Jim Ryun's 13-year-old American record of 3:33.1. The time he heard was :58.6.
But a hard, cold wind was blowing out of the Willamette Valley to the north, snapping the flags surrounding the University of Oregon's Hayward Field in Eugene and making it difficult to keep to his plan. A few minutes later the same wind would blow away Mary Decker's chances of breaking Jan Merrill's American record in the women's 1,500, and Decker would have to settle for a Trials-record 4:04.91.
Ahead, Masback slowed. "I'd hoped he would protect me for one more back-stretch," said Scott later. When Masback didn't, Scott went to the front. "I just hate the kicker's type of race," he would say. "Three minutes at the three-quarter and the whole field ready to blast by."
Scott had reason to be nervous about kickers. Behind him somewhere was Don Paige, who six days before had sprinted for the final three-quarters of a lap to win the 800 in 1:44.53, the best in the world this year. "I had watched that and kind of went into a one-day frenzy," said Scott. "My coach, Len Miller, settled me down. The plan was to put Paige away early after his 800 races and a hard 1,500 heat yesterday." Scott's pace did just that, abetted by Paige's very sore left Achilles tendon. After half a mile it was clear that Paige would be no factor, and he dropped out, on the shouted advice of meet physicians.
Now Scott forced the pace, not so much with resolve as with absorption. "I didn't hear the crowd. The second and third laps almost aren't there in memory," he said. They were there in fact, as he and Steve Lacy were pulling away, passing three-quarters in 2:54.7, very near where Scott wanted to be.
With 300 meters to run, Scott called himself to maximum effort. In answer, the wind pressed against him even harder. "It really stood me up that last lap," he said. Lacy stayed close. Out of the last turn Scott drifted wide and it looked as if Lacy had the strength to challenge on the inside. But Scott's stamina was too great and he pulled away to a seven-yard victory. He hit the tape pale and grateful in 3:35.15, about two seconds from Ryun's record but the fastest time in the world this year. Lacy finished in a personal best of 3:36.23.
"Without the wind I know I could have done it," Scott said. "But it's so good to get it over. I can't imagine what the Olympic pressure must be like, if it's like this for Trials that don't even get you there."
"These aren't the Olympic Trials," said Al Oerter shortly before the discus throw. And Oerter, unlike Scott, ought to know, having won four Olympic gold medals. "I'm sure they're not the Olympic Trials because I've been sleeping at night. It's a wonderful track meet, but a meet for its own sake, nothing more."
In this atmosphere one could easily preserve one's wishful conviction that instead of settling for fourth with a throw of 215'1" behind the masterful 225'4" of Mac Wilkins and the 223'1" of John Powell and the 218'2" of Ben Plucknett, Oerter, breathing in the sharp air of a real Olympics Trial, would have pulled out at least third place on his final throw.
Yet athletes give their own meaning to what they do, simply by the force of their desires. "Being an Olympian, even in name only, is rare" said Powell. "It doesn't do much on resumés, I can attest, but you have to go for what you can get. It is important."