Sport: To Do a Little Better

  • Share
  • Read Later

(7 of 9)

Not until February of this year was Rafer Johnson able to try any real exercise. Then he spent two dreary months jogging or walking around the U.C.L.A. practice field, for up to six hours at a stretch. In April, under the anxious eye of U.C.L.A. Track Coach Ducky Drake, he tried sprint starts. But Johnson and his coach were most afraid of back-wrench ing jumps. At last, in late spring, Johnson took a deep breath and started down the pole-vault runway. He cleared the bar—and plummeted into the sawdust without a twinge. Johnson was back on the track.

Johnson launched his comeback at July's National A.A.U. Championships, which also served as the Olympic trials. Though an injury as simple as a pulled muscle might have kept Johnson off the Olympic team altogether, he went all out for a special reason. Kuznetsov had captured his world record and pushed the score to 8,357 points. In the ninth event, Johnson raced smoothly across the grass and sent a silver javelin shimmering into the air. When it landed 233 ft. 3 in. away, Johnson knew he had already passed Kuznetsov's world record. In pure delight, he began sprinting after his toss. Then he suddenly stopped and knelt to pray in the middle of the field, his face wet with tears. In the final event, the 1,500 meters, Johnson increased his world record to a final total of 8,683 points.

Even that score was far from safe that July day on the University of Oregon's track field. Close behind Johnson was his old rival Yang. Though a Formosan. Yang was eligible for the A.A.U. meet, which accepts qualified foreigners. At this point, should he make a fast time in his heat of the 1,500 meters. Yang still had an outside chance of breaking Johnson's newly set world record. When Yang began to falter. Johnson's behavior was characteristic. From the sidelines he cried encouragement: "Keep going! Keep going! It's almost over!" Lifted by Johnson's cheers. Yang finished with the fine score of 8,426 points to pass Kuznetsov—but still short of Johnson's record. That night Johnson sent a telegram home: "I did it with God's help—a new world record.''

A Challenge. For the past six years Johnson's life has been dominated by the decathlon. In recent months he lived for little else. Now a U.C.L.A. graduate student in physical education, Rafer Johnson shares an $83-a-month apartment with his brother Jim, a U.C.L.A. football player and a hurdler of near-Olympic caliber. Johnson has had no time for dates or vacations, and little relaxation beyond strumming a guitar. Every afternoon he got into his 1949 Chevrolet, a vehicle plainly showing its 150,000-mile past, and drove out to the U.C.L.A. field to practice.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9