In 1933 and 1934 Metcalfe showed everyone that he was the "world's fastest human." In the 1933 NCAA meet he ran 100 yards in 9.4 seconds, to equal the world record, then tore through the 220 in 20.4, to set a new one. With double victories in both the AAU and NCAA meets in 1934, he became the only man in history to sweep both championships three times. He made an undefeated tour through Europe in 1933 and the Orient in 1934. Indoors, he answered critics who said he had a slow start by running 40 yards in 4.3 seconds, 60 yards in 6.1 and 70 yards in 7.0.
By the time he began training for the 1936 Olympics, Metcalfe had used up his college eligibility. In three years he had lost only one varsity race—his first, a 40-yard dash. Now he was hampered by two problems, one as old as himself, the other new.
Early to bed
The old one was money. Metcalfe had always held some sort of job since he was 7. In grade school he had worked as an errand boy for a tailor, delivery boy for a grocer and helper on a vegetable wagon. He had to be in bed by 7:30 to be up for work at 3:30 a.m. "It was usually still light outside as I went to bed, and more than once when I heard the kids playing outside I wanted to cry."
While at Tilden Tech in Chicago, where he graduated in the regular four years despite a job clerking in a fish market three days a week, he won every interscholastic title available, including the national interscholastic 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds and the 220 in 21 flat. It was his desire to go to college, but Metcalfe felt he should get a full-time job. He did not enroll at Marquette until his mother urged him to "go get an education, and become the world champion, too."
A job as waterboy and trainer for the football, basketball and track teams at Marquette paid $40 a month toward books, transportation and a room ("I learned to economize"). In his white sweater and white ducks, and huskier than the usual waterboy, Metcalfe became a familiar figure on the campus as he trotted out to tend to the needs of the Marquette varsity teams. In spring, when he combined rubdown duties for the track squad with his own training, he was of necessity the first to arrive and the last to leave every practice.
By 1936 he was working as an attendant at a mental home. This job took 48 hours a week from the time he needed for his studies at Marquette and left him little time to train.
The new problem that hampered Metcalfe was the lack of track meets open to noncollege athletes. The two factors led to a critical delay in the start of his training. Coach Jennings pleaded with Metcalfe to quit his job, but Ralph felt he owed it to his family to help out as long as possible. The result was costly.
"I never reached my peak," Metcalfe says. "I had only an hour a day to train. It was a cold spring, and I pulled a muscle in the AAU meet."
In the U.S. Olympic trials at Randall's Island, N.Y., however, he qualified for the 100 meters by finishing second to Jesse Owens. But he missed making the Olympic team in the 200 meters when he finished a disappointing fourth. Ironically, Metcalfe had won an unprecedented fifth consecutive AAU 200-meter championship only the week before.