What could poor, brave, harassed Mark Croghan possibly do? Sure, the Ohio State senior led the first 5½ 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 26'8¼" 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."
While he waited, Brown watched Kibiri duel 1988 Olympic champion Peter Rono of Mount Saint Mary's in the 1,500 meters. Rono was stepped on in the first lap and had a shoe ripped away, yet somehow still led out of the final turn. "But when I kicked, my foot slipped," said Rono. Kibiri glided by to win in 3:39.53. Ten more points for the Cougars.
Tennessee high jumper Randy Jenkins's lifetime best was 7'4¼". He equaled it in Eugene. "But he saw we needed points," said Brown. "He jumped 7'5¼". We needed more. He jumped 7'6½"." Jenkins placed second to Southern Illinois's Darrin Plab, although both cleared the same height.
As Jenkins rose, Washington State's Tony Li, of Beijing, the fastest qualifier in the 110-meter high hurdles, was going askew. The hurdle finalists ran aided by a stiff tail wind. Li started well but found the wind nudging him closer and closer to each approaching barrier. "It was so strong, it finally pushed me into the eighth hurdle," said Li. "That knocked me out of my lane." And out of the race. The net result of the high jump and 110 hurdles was a 16-point swing to Tennessee. When the Vols' Aric Long won the decathlon with 7,916 points and teammate Brian Brophy placed third, with 7,762, Tennessee had a final score of 51 points to Washington State's 42. Oregon was third, with 36.
The best mark of the meet came from Nevada Reno's Kamy Keshmiri, who set a collegiate record of 218'5" in the discus. At 22, he has thrown the discus for 14 years and has twice won the TAC nationals. Otherwise, he's hard to quantify, pacing the field between throws with such great slow menace that his open joy after the record throw came as a surprise. "I felt such a rush that it pretty much kept me from throwing farther," Keshmiri said.
In the women's team competition, Louisiana State's inexhaustible stable of sprinters, hurdlers and heptathletes staked the Tigers to 78 points and a fifth straight outdoor title. Not that Texas, which finished 11 points back, didn't provide a burning orange streak in the person of Carlette Guidry. A senior, Guidry had experienced little magic in past NCAA outdoor championships. She even false-started and was disqualified from the 100-meter final in 1990.
But when she took the baton to anchor the 400-meter relay a yard behind LSU's defending sprint champion, Esther Jones, and finished a yard ahead of Jones, "the black cloud was gone," as Guidry put it. "The meet turned sweet."
Guidry has hit the weights hard this year. When she moved away from Jones in both the 100 and 200, winning in wind-aided times of 10.91 and 22.44, Jones knew why. "I had the stride frequency," Jones said. "But not the strength. Carlette prepared better."
A winner in the 200, Guidry also tasted victory in the 100 and 400 relay.
Croghan (right) endured Kibiri on his shoulder before pulling away to finish in 8:22.26.