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Original Issue

Without peer with a spear

Unheralded Tom Petranoff shattered the world javelin record by 9'10"

As Tom Petranoff of the Southern California Striders bounded down the crumbling Tartan javelin approach at the UCLA-Pepsi Invitational Track Meet Sunday, his spear held lightly aloft in his right hand, Olympic javelin thrower Karin Smith stood nearby, explaining the basics of the event to a curious spectator. "Watch this throw of Tom's," she said, "and I'll point out his mistakes to you and what happens because of them."

They watched. He threw. And Smith was silent. The javelin vibrated slightly as it left Petranoff's hand and then became stable, heading down the right side of the sector. "He hit it right through the point," said Smith finally. "Look at it!"

It sailed and sailed, turning point down as it struck the turf three good strides beyond the world-record line. The crowd on hand at this early stage of the meet, some 10,000, had moaned at the loveliness of the flight, but did not erupt in cheers. The markers must be wrong, many onlookers apparently thought. But Petranoff had indeed thrown 327'2", breaking the 1980 world record of Hungary's Ferenc Paragi by an astounding nine feet and 10 inches.

At 25 Petranoff is a rather rotund 6'2" 217-pounder, with curly locks and a Fu Manchu mustache, and a most astonishingly casual manner for a new world-record holder. "It felt easy," he said. "That's the way with the javelin. When you throw far, it's through the point [that is, with the force all going in the direction the spear is aimed] and smooth. To do well you've got to relax."

Petranoff seemed the man for that, mildly peeling an orange on the infield as cameramen and press swarmed around him. Until recently he was a wholesale grocery distributor in Los Angeles, working the night shift. Now he has taken a job with a brewery. He is originally from Illinois, but threw no javelins there. "I came to California in 1977 when I was 18," he said. He attended Palomar J.C. in San Marcos, and one day tried out for the baseball team as a pitcher and outfielder. The coaches didn't seem impressed by his arm, but on a nearby field he saw people throwing spears. "I said, 'Can I try?' "

Within four weeks he had reached 252'1". By last season he was ranked second in the U.S. behind American-record holder (314'4") Bob Roggy, with whom Petranoff roomed in an L.A. suburb in 1980. His best before Sunday was 297'0", but he had had throws of 305' and 308' at throwing clinics. Quietly confident, he had predicted a world record the night before to Canadian thrower Phil Olsen.

Petranoff was quick to credit javelin designer Dick Held for his success. "Dick tries to tailor a javelin to the technique of each thrower," Petranoff said. Held, standing alongside, explained that when traveling faster than 90 feet per second, a javelin develops a lift that exceeds its own weight, so it will soar as if borne by an invisible swan. Petranoff's velocity at release, he guessed, was at least 120 feet per second. "The greater the angle of attack through the air, the greater the lift," he said. "But to get that greater angle the javelin must be thrown with more power, which Tom obviously has."

But wait. The balance of the implement, the point shape and the diameter are all specified by the rules. So how do you tailor a javelin? "By working on the tail," said Held. "The narrower it is, the higher the javelin floats."

"It's like an airplane taking off," said Petranoff. "You want a little head wind—which it didn't feel like I had on that throw."

"But you shattered the world record!" cried a man with a microphone.

"It just happened," said Petranoff, munching on his orange. "Yeah, 10 feet is a lot, but when Roggy threw 314 in Stuttgart last year there was a tail wind, and the thing went so low you didn't think it could make 275. That one could have been 330 if conditions had been perfect. Bob could well throw 100 meters [328'1"] tomorrow. I was in the right place at the right time and hit the point. From now on a lot of people are going to be saying, hey, if old Tom can do it, I can do it, too."

Petranoff's record capped a spectacular two days of California track. In Modesto the previous evening, Carl Lewis made another try at Jim Hines's 14½-year-old 100-meter record of 9.95, set in 7,349-foot altitude at the Mexico City Olympics. Lewis took charge at 50 meters and won by three yards from Arizona State's Ron Brown. There was a wait for the official time. The photo had to be studied. The wind was a legal 1.48 meters per second (more than 2.0 nullifies a record). In the anticipatory hubbub, rumors danced. Hines was at the meet. Someone told him the time was 9.95.

"He tied it?" yelled Hines, grabbing his hat with both hands and seeming to try to pull it down over his head.

But he hadn't. "Wasn't a half inch from being 9.95," said Official Ed Hicks, "but it was 9.96."

It was Lewis' turn to yelp. "Look again!" he cried, perhaps belying his assertion of a moment before that he'd be happy with any time better than his previous best of 10.00, which he equaled in Modesto last year, the fastest ever at sea level.

The next day in Los Angeles, he did his first outdoor long jumping of the year, reaching 28'1" on his fourth try. Such are Lewis' standards that he looked back irritated at the hole he made in the sand.

Evelyn Ashford had good reason to wail in Modesto. She ran 10.85 in the 100, .03 better than East Germany's Marlies Gohr's world record, but the wind was 2.34 meters per second. "I'm going to cry!" she said. "So now it's like it never happened."

A TV announcer then told her that the wind reading on the false start before the race was only 1.8.

"Oh!" she shouted, spinning away. If she'd had a hat, she might have pulled it down over his head.

The wind that had nudged her that touch too hard supported 1976 Olympic champion Mac Wilkins' discus on his longest throw since 1980, 230'10", only 2'7" shy of East Germany's Wolfgang Schmidt's world record. "I'm finally learning how to sail them," Wilkins said, "to spin them so they stay flat longer."

"You look bigger," said an admiring voice in the crowd. Wilkins' expression eloquently said, ah, how they forget.

"No, still 255," he said. "I've been unhappy with my throwing for two years. I tried to quit after 1980, but something inside me still wants me to do this. I went through a year [1981] when my best was 206 and Ben Plucknett did 237. Now I'm strong, and the technique is coming, and I just have to remember who I am."

No man can remember ruling any track event as Edwin Corley Moses has the 400-meter hurdles. He won the 1976 Olympic final when he was 20, in a then-record 47.64. He cut the mark to 47.13 in 1980. More compelling to the popular imagination is his feat of having won his last 72 races in a row, a streak dating back to 1977.

But when the 1982 spring campaign began, Moses wasn't ready. "I'd had pneumonia in 1980, and the infection was still lingering," he said last week. "The doctors said if I trained hard before I got healthy, I risked scarring my lungs."

So he waited, and married Myrella Bordt, a West German artist well worth letting the rest of the world go by for. When he wasn't ready by the nationals in June, he took the whole year off. "I've always gone into my races more thoroughly prepared than anyone else," he said. "That's policy. The streak was not the reason for that. The streak was a result of that. My concern was not to protect the streak but to protect my body."

He began again last November, fully healthy. First there was cross-country and Nautilus work, and then interval training that a half-miler would do. "This is not a speed event," he firmly maintains. "It's stamina. The 400 hurdles hurt, and they hurt me, too. All this training is for one thing, the last 100 meters."

In Modesto, he was nervous, setting his blocks wrong and committing a false start. But soon the field was away cleanly. Moses worked the first 200 hard, getting his customary 13 steps between hurdles despite a slight head wind. "I couldn't put the race together in my head beforehand," he would say. "I couldn't even imagine how it would feel. But when I got out there, it all came back."

Yet Andre Phillips was right with him, and last year's NCAA and TAC champion, David Patrick, was only a yard back. "The pressure of the streak," Moses would say, "comes because the other guys are desperate to beat me every time out. It's hard to always be No. 2 or 3 or 4...uh, I imagine."

For Moses, it's simply unacceptable. He charged into the turn as the effort of fighting the wind began to tell on the rest of the field, and halfway down the stretch he had opened a lead of five yards. He won, relaxing, in 49.02 to Patrick's 49.52. Phillips faded to 50.15 in fourth.

Moses bent, hands on knees, for many seconds before he could speak. "That was hard," he said. "The time doesn't reflect the effort." After a slow walk to his sweats, he continued, "The first race is vital, psychologically...." Then Myrella got to him with a hug of relief, and he finally showed his wonderful, gap-toothed smile. "I'm thankful," he said. "Hey, it feels like the good old days."


Petranoff's throw was his best by more than 30 feet.


Moses continued his chain of wins with a 49.02 at Modesto.