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Thank heaven for this little girl


When I bring a trophy home, I look at it for a day or so and then sometime later I wake up in the middle of the night and say to myself, 'Do I really run?' I have to get up, go down and look at my trophies on the piano and then I say, 'Yeah, I guess I really do run.' "

A little girl's naiveté, the kind that used to disarm one before the teen-age innocent was added to the endangered-species list, but it is doubtful that Robin Theresa Campbell (above) will ever again really need reassurance that she is a runner. Any lingering doubt, including that of the 14-year-old herself, was eliminated last week in Richmond where Robin proved that she not only runs but, if need be, flies.

The occasion was Friday night's U.S.-U.S.S.R. indoor track meet, an event all but sabotaged by the NCAA, which forced six athletes to withdraw, undoubtedly costing the U.S. the meet. It was hardly the setting one would wish on an eighth-grader who could say, "It probably will be fun to run against someone from a different country, because I've never done that before."

And what glorious fun it was for 9,300 ecstatic fans in Richmond Coliseum, for pacesetting Robin and for almost everyone else but her Russian opponents, Valentina Gerasimova, 23, and especially Tamara Kazachkova, 22. Kazachkova is a veteran of international competition, but over 880 yards it was Robin who showed the tactical moxie of a world-class athlete.

"It seems like the Russian runners like to make their move at 600 yards," said Harry McKnight, coach of the U.S. women, before the race, "so we told Robin to run relaxed, and if they made that move, to go with them. If they waited and tried it in the stretch, that would be all right. She's a fast kid and she can hang in there."

Gerasimova tried to go by Robin after four laps, but the kid was having none of that. Campbell merely accelerated until Gerasimova was spent, and when Kazachkova challenged her in the stretch, Robin kicked and won by inches. Her time of 2:11.1 missed the meet record by a tick, but undeniably it was Robin's night, as the medley relay proved two hours later.

Despite the U.S. women's 8-4 advantage in first places, the score was 60-all going into the final relay. As luck, poetic justice, show biz and good coaching would have it, Robin anchored the victorious U.S. team that included Matt-line Render, 440 winner Kathy Hammond and Cheryl Toussaint, who had taken the 600. The relay was close only through the first two baton exchanges; Robin had a 10-yard lead on Kazachkova and won by 15 to tumultuous applause for a 65-62 U.S. women's victory.

Russia, however, took the men's competition 84-76 and thus won the meet 146-141. You can blame that outcome on the NCAA. As on other occasions too numerous for any sane man to remember, the meet was plagued by the tiresome issue of sanction. Since the AAU had failed to request an NCAA sanction, the NCAA claimed that any collegian who competed faced ineligibility, either for himself or his school. You could argue that the edict smacked of the same kind of arrogance that the AAU has been guilty of in the past. It was harder to read it as logical.

The NCAA, after all, had sanctioned the AAU championships that qualified athletes for the U.S. team. The NCAA had failed to raise the same stink about last year's inaugural meet in Richmond, so it was a little late for precedent, and the AAU, like it or not, is the sole sanctioning authority for international competition. None of which had any noticeable effect on the NCAA's threat to cast student-athletes into the limbo of ineligibility.

That prospect was desolate enough to keep Randy Williams, the Olympic s, long-jump gold medalist, in California. Rod Milburn, the Olympic high-hurdle champion, was also a no-show, while Pole Vaulter Steve Smith, the indoor-world-record holder, was a late scratch, claiming a leg injury. First places from two of the above would have given the U.S. the whole shebang.

Two collegians did defy the NCAA: Fred Samara of Penn, who finished fourth in the pentathlon, and Adelphi's Dennis Walker, who ran on the winning men's medley relay team. The AAU got a restraining order in U.S. District Court to prevent the NCAA from penalizing them.

Against this unseemly backdrop, the guileless Campbell was nothing less than a sweetheart. "In the 880 I wasn't scared at all," she said. "The other kids on the team said I had a good chance of winning. Both the 880 and the relay were fun, but I guess I liked the relay best. It decided the meet. All those people were cheering for us to win, and I like to make everyone happy."

No one was happier about Robin's success, or less surprised, than Brooks Johnson, the coach for whom she runs under the club colors of Sports International in her hometown of Washington, D.C. Johnson needed a lift. He was named head coach of the U.S. men on Wednesday after the AAU's original choices, Jim Banner of the University of Pittsburgh and Princeton's Larry Ellis, were successively forced by the NCAA to withdraw.

Earlier in the week Johnson said he was convinced that Robin was simply a marvel. "When you go from age-group track, you start all over at the bottom of the ladder," he said. "But she's just continued to move right on up. She doesn't scare. She's very tough-minded and she intimidates the Olympians on our club. She says, 'I'm going to get you,' like it's a curse. Competition for her has been a way of life. Within her family and in her neighborhood, you have to compete just to stand still."

Robin is one of seven children of Francis and Gloria Campbell, a postal supervisor and an accounting technician for HUD respectively; and with four older brothers (none of whom is particularly athletic) Robin started competing early for running room at the playground across the street from her home. Two of her sisters, Donna, 11, and Kim, 9, have augmented her drive. They also run for Sports International and, as Johnson says, "As the girls drop down in age, they get better."

Even more impressive than Robin's competitive hunger is the awesome range of her talent, which she has unleashed at distances from the 220, in which she has a personal best of 25.5, to the mile (5:01) with unvarying success. "At last year's Olympic trials they had special races for girls 12 and 13 years old," Johnson says. "Robin won the 220, and the next night she took the 1,500. In August at the Youth Games, she won the 220, three months later she won three national cross-country championships in the 12-13 bracket, and Donna won the same races in the 10-11 division."

"I like to run sprints and I like cross country as long as it isn't raining," Robin says. "I have no favorite race. Later on I'd like to try the high jump."

Robin works out at St. Albans School where Johnson is track coach as well as a teacher of anthropology to, among others, Kim Agnew. One of the country's richest parochial schools, it claims Carl Albert's son as captain of its wrestling team, George Bush's son as captain of the basketball team and Charles Percy's son as varsity shortstop. It also has a 457-yard running track which, says Johnson, "looks like a pregnant box."

St. Albans is an hour-and-a-half bus ride from Robin's home, but both she and her family think the time well spent. "They like to see me run," Robin says of her parents. "They don't want me to-go anywhere they haven't been, so they travel with me. One of my brothers, Mark, follows my times and tells me what I'm going to do in my races. Carlton, another brother, says, 'Don't you come back home unless you win.' "

Robin is going to keep coming back home. "I've never felt I was very good," she said before the Russian meet, "but since I've been winning everything, I guess I must be." She is, as 9,300 fans at Richmond will testify.