As Sebastian Coe took a victory lap after the fastest mile ever run, his 3:48.53 on a still, warm night at the Zurich International Meet last Wednesday, the applause for his record was interrupted by the victory ceremony for Renaldo Nehemiah's world record of 12.93 in the 110-meter high hurdles, set half an hour earlier. Nehemiah came off the platform with his medal, trotted to Coe, and the crowd of 25,000 rose, more than doubly inspired by the sight of them together. For a moment, as they raised their arms in salute, Coe and Nehemiah seemed to embody the unifying effect of athletic achievement, the splendor of their performances temporarily overriding differences of event, background and character.
Yet their own feelings were in contrast. Coe's were mixed. There was joy that he'd taken the record back from his British rival Steve Ovett, who had lifted it from Coe a year ago with a 3:48.8. But Coe also sensed he'd had an opportunity for a far better time—and Ovett's 1,500-meter record of 3:31.36 en route—and had not seized it.
Nehemiah's satisfaction was complete. It was the solid knowledge of return, of vindication, almost of revenge. He had become the first man to break 13 seconds in the highs without benefit of an excessive following wind, and he did it while defeating his archrival Greg Foster, who cut his own best to 13.03 while finishing second. But the thing that made Nehemiah ecstatic was the length of the road he had traveled.
In May, a week after Foster had beaten him in the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA, in 13.10, Nehemiah fell at the tape in the Maryland Track Classic 100-meter dash. "I cracked a bone in my right ankle," he says. "That put me out for seven weeks. I felt like quitting. A lot of people wrote me off, saying Foster finally had my number. I was sick and tired of that."
So when he was healed enough to train, Nehemiah put himself under the eye of famed hurdle coach Wilbur Ross of Somerdale, N.J. "We just ate and slept hurdling," he says. Nehemiah trained away 10 extra pounds of muscle he had put on to win the February Superstars competition, returning to his racing optimum of 172. And, interestingly, this man who has so perpetually exuded sureness credits Ross with increasing his confidence. "He instilled in me that I could do it, that I still had it."
His first try at Foster came at the National Sports Festival on July 26 in Syracuse, N.Y. "I didn't have much choice," says Nehemiah. "I had to win." It was raining. The track was mushy. A strong trailing wind precluded any record possibility and forced both men closer to the approaching hurdles than they wanted, a condition that favored the shorter, more limber Nehemiah. "I had a great start, and that was the race," he says. "Greg panicked and tried to catch me." Foster hit several hurdles. Nehemiah won in 13 flat, with Foster at 13.22.
The rubber match came in Zurich, on a freshly resurfaced track, with the barest breeze of 0.2 of a meter per second in the hurdlers' faces. Nehemiah had taken full advantage of his position as world-record holder to arrange for personal preferences. "The meet director, Andreas Br�gger, asked me, 'What lane do you want?' I said, 'Four.' 'What lane do you want Foster in?' I said, 'Five.' I wanted to know where he was at all times. There was no way he was going to run a lane or more away like in the past, which is what he likes best."
There was one false start, by Sam Turner of the U.S. "I was glad we had that," said Nehemiah later. "I felt a little tight, and that made me move and got the adrenaline flowing more."
Then they were off cleanly, with Foster getting a splendid start. They were even over the first four hurdles. "I thought he had a little lead for three," said Nehemiah, "and I said to myself, 'Oh, no. You got to catch him.' " At the fourth, Nehemiah was exhorting himself, "Skeets, stay on your toes. Lean more. Drive more," and he began to edge ahead. By now they were moving so fast that it appeared that their requisite three strides between hurdles were no more than furious stutter steps. At the sixth, Foster felt a twinge in the lower hamstring of his right leg, the trail leg that is whipped to the side across the barriers. Nehemiah went ahead by two feet and as he approached the 10th hurdle was thinking, "Now, Skeets, this is the most important one. He can catch me. Carry on through the tape."
He finished a yard up on Foster. As he slowed, he caught sight of the time on the digital clock at the end of the stadium. That moved him to a jubilant victory lap, and he arrived back at the blocks just as Foster completed his slow, thoughtful jog back up the stretch. They hugged briefly, and Nehemiah said, with honesty, "If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't have run that time."