What could poor, brave, harassed Mark Croghan possibly do? Sure, the Ohio State senior led the first 5� laps of the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships on the University of Oregon's Hayward Field. But over every hurdle and water jump, Washington State's Samuel Kibiri flowed along a few inches beside him, sending into Croghan's ear the soft breath of doom.
Croghan knew that sound. Kibiri, a Kenyan, had outkicked him easily in the Penn Relays steeplechase in April. Indeed, Kibiri was favored to win the steeplechase and lead WSU to its first outdoor team title.
And now, on Friday, Kibiri was running so close to Croghan that sometimes he seemed to be steering him with a hand on his elbow. "I think the Kenyans do that," Croghan would say, "to get you distracted, to take some energy out of you."
A less poised runner would have shoved Kibiri wide. Croghan did not. He had a plan. "After that loss at Penn," he said, "I asked myself, How can I possibly beat this guy?"
Croghan began his answer with 800 meters to go, bolting ahead so suddenly, it seemed he had miscounted laps and was sprinting for home. Kibiri, with a look of mild surprise, allowed him five meters. "I wanted to run the next-to-last lap so hard that from then on it would be survival," said Croghan. Ah, but whose?
He covered that lap in a killing 63 seconds. The price was visible. "I felt horrible," Croghan said later. With 400 meters to go, Kibiri was 15 meters back but still looked feather-footed and dangerous. "Now we find out," thought Croghan.
In the course of that last long lap, Kibiri found out what Croghan had already suspected. American track has one tough new steeplechaser. Despite stutter-staggering into the last water jump, Croghan found the strength for another 63 and finished in 8:22.26, the fastest time in the world this season and a full 40 meters ahead of Kibiri's 8:29.78. Croghan will surely run faster. No man can run harder.
Yet Kibiri's second place was more than offset for Washington State by George Ogbeide's unexpected victory in the long jump. The Nigerian sprinter reached 26'8�" to give the Cougars a 28-20 lead over Tennessee going into Saturday, the four-day meet's final day.
Tennessee had lost projected points in the sprints, vault and 800 meters. But the Vols' men's coach, Doug Brown, is of the Croghan mold. Nineteen years ago, on this same track, as a Tennessee sophomore in the 1972 Olympic trials steeplechase, Brown tripped over a barrier and fell with 300 meters to go. He dragged himself up, bleeding, drove himself from fourth to second in the home stretch and so became an Olympian. Late that night, bruised and on crutches, he had stood under the stands. Recalling that moment last week, Brown said, "I cried, looking out over this field where so much has been lost and won, so many lives changed, and now I was part of it." He added, "It is here. The magic is still here."
So when you are down, and you are coached by Doug Brown, you get up. The Tennessee men brought 16 athletes to the NCAAs. All, as it happens, were U.S. citizens. Their rivalry with Washington State, which sported contenders from four continents, was intense. "We wanted to prove we could still win this meet with American kids," said Brown, "but we needed someone to do what Ogbeide had done for them with his jump."