Last Wednesday, the day before the AAU national track and field championships opened in Los Angeles, Morehouse University's unpaid coach, the Rev. Lloyd Jackson, brought his splendid charge Edwin Moses to the UCLA track for a final tune-up. As the Olympic 400-meter-hurdle champion and world-record holder warmed up, Jackson was approached by Fred Thompson, the effervescent coach of the Atoms Track Club of New York. "I will bet you solid money that your man breaks 48 flat," said Thompson.
Now that seemed rash. Only two men have ever run the event under 48 seconds. John Akii-Bua of Uganda did it in winning the 1972 Olympic race in 47.82, and Moses cut that to 47.64 four years later at Montreal. But this was not an Olympics, simply an AAU meet in the down year following the Games. True, there was the incentive of gaining a spot on the U.S. team that would compete in September in the inaugural World Cup. But that was so far in the future, and the chance of a berth had been presented in such a confusing manner by the AAU, that the L.A. meet seemed anything but pressure-packed. Add to this atmosphere the fact that Moses, after running 48.64 in Jamaica a month ago, had caught the flu and had missed two weeks of training. To wager against 48 flat looked like easy money.
Yet Jackson paused, and his hesitation had little to do with religious scruple. He, too, believed 48 seconds possible, and if he had any doubts, they were assuaged when Moses, running in sweat pants and into a healthy Pacific breeze, churned a hard 200 meters. Two days later Derald Harris of Los Medanos Junior College in Pittsburg, Calif., would win the national championship 200 in 20.6. In his workout Moses did 20.3. "No bet," said Jackson. The 400 hurdles was clearly going to be an event to watch.
Relaxed the AAUs may have been, but all track meets are swirling maelstroms of events, each a little whirlpool of stories. In this year's nationals the stories were more pleasant to recount than those of last year's cutthroat Olympic Trials. Here was Milan Tiff, 27, of the Tobias Striders, experimenting with a new style of landing that resembled a hook slide into second base, winning the triple jump on his fourth attempt with a spectacular 57'¼", which would have been an American record by seven inches had it not been for a following wind above the two meters per second allowable. What did Tiff, an artist who sells his paintings for as much as $3,000, do on his last two jumps when the wind had dropped and he had a chance to erase the record? He passed. "I stopped at 57 because I didn't want to lose all my friends," he said. Tiff, who views his triple jump competitors as family, would have every athlete depart a meet happy, unconcerned over placings, and it seemed fitting that he shone here, for this was a meet, in which few tears were shed except those of joy or astonishment.
Before the women's 1,500, Francie Larrieu Lutz, tired and distracted after packing for a long European tour, murmured, "I'll need a miracle to win this." Jan Merrill had taken her American record in the mile in May, then three weeks ago had gotten the world record for 5,000 meters. Yet Francie sprinted the last lap in 61.6 to win in a meet-record 4:08.2. As she crossed the line her face was a kaleidoscope of emotions: relief, turning to jubilation, turning to wet-eyed gratification. And Merrill, stronger every year, came back to win the 3,000 from Cindy Bremser of the Wisconsin T.C. and a weary Francie.
Again and again the remarks of champions dwelt not on dedication, but on relaxation, on fun. "I've been taking it easy," said Arnie Robinson, the Olympic long-jump champion. "Not pushing myself. But during the jumping I couldn't help getting all geared up. It was a competition every jumper would want to be in." With one jump remaining, Charlton Ehizuelen of Nigeria led with 26'8¾". Then Robinson, in third, "had a little fun" and sailed 27'½" to win. It was his fifth national outdoor title, three of them won on the last jump.
When Iowa State's Peg Neppel, running on a sore foot, cruised to a world best of 33:15.1 in the infrequently contested women's 10,000 on the first day of the meet, she said, "I've been resting, resting, resting. I was wiped out from final exams. Yesterday I knew my foot was sore and would psych me if I worked out, so I didn't run at all." Her time was more than a minute better than her previous best, and 19 seconds faster than Denmark's Loa Olofsson's world mark.
Mark Belger, the Villanova junior running for the Philadelphia Pioneer Club, even went to the beach on Friday morning. That afternoon he qualified for the 800-meter final and the next day won his first outdoor race since 1975. "I want to know who wrote the script," he said. "It had a great ending." Seventh at the end of the first lap, Belger let Mark Lech of Northeastern, NCAA champion Mark Enyeart of Utah State and Jamaican Seymour Newman all fight for the lead on the final lap. "Everybody made little spurts down the backstretch, but I just kept driving. Then they all tightened." Belger swept by his tired rivals to win in 1:45.8, with Newman second in 1:45.9.
Carefree as the atmosphere seemed, winning was important this year because of the World Cup, scheduled for Sept. 2-4 in Düsseldorf. The eight-team affair will involve the U.S. and all-star teams from Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe, the Western Hemisphere outside the U.S. and the top two teams in the European Cup finals, in all likelihood East Germany and the Soviet Union. Since each team will be permitted only one contestant per event, it was mandatory to win—or at least be the first American to finish—at the AAU.
Or it probably was. The AAU men's track and field committee had hedged by saying the winner "is eligible" for the U.S. World Cup team. The final selection will be made by the coaching staff, headed by Tennessee's Stan Huntsman. The inevitable question—since the AAU has no money to run another set of trials at the end of the summer—was how much did winning in June really mean in terms of making up a team that would compete almost three months hence.