I once rubbed elbows with Hercules.
It was at the 1976 Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. My wife and I were crossing a grass practice field during a break in the action. From a distance, our attention was drawn to a tall, dominant figure striding in our direction.
With each approaching step, the figure took on the glowing countenance of someone special—almost beyond human. Tanned, handsome and muscular, he was clothed only in the thin garments of competition—obviously an elite athlete in peak condition.
As an athlete myself, I had been around a few hard bodies, but I had never seen such a physical specimen as this. He whisked right by us, his long hair and mustache accentuating the aura of a Greek god. We were speechless, mouths agape.
When we caught our breath, the dawning of reality hit us both at once: That was Mac Wilkins!
That simple brush with greatness gave us a focal point for the summer. Wilkins became our hero (and my wife’s not-so-secret crush). Via television and newspapers, we followed his exploits right through his Olympic record and gold medal in the discus at the ’76 Montreal Games.
And though that Olympic masterpiece will no doubt be considered the high point of Wilkins’ incredible 23-year career, it may have been eclipsed (in terms of sheer accomplishment) at a relatively insignificant track meet in the Bay Area of California in early May of that year.
The San Jose Invitational was typical of the many regional meets of the era. World-class athletes—most of whom competed for clubs—would gather for semi-formal, fan-friendly competitions, without the instant fanfare of the all-seeing digital media of today.
On May 1, 1976, Wilkins, an Oregon native and University of Oregon graduate, was already at the top of his game. Only days before, he had broken John Powell’s world record by three inches with a 226-foot, 11-inch effort.
The two of them, on their march toward Montreal, faced off again in San Jose. Apparently, Wilkins thought his narrow squeaker past Powell’s record might be seen as a sign of weakness.
If any notion of weakness did exist, it was dispelled by what happened next.
With that in mind, I’ll let Garry Hill, who wrote about the meet for Track and Field News, describe the action:
Mac’s first warmup toss, a thunderous 230-footer, brought screams from a cheering section standing behind a barrier (protecting the vaulters) at about 240 feet.
It was a portent of things to come, as Wilkins went into his quick spin, utilized his great whip and unleashed a toss of 229-0. More screams from the cheering ‘section (i.e., decathletes Fred Samara, Bruce Jenner and Vince Pluckebaum).
Not even needing the measurement to know he had the record, Wilkins stepped out of the ring and yelled at Powell, “Put it away, John. It’s all over.”
Over for Powell perhaps, but not for Wilkins. “I wanted it again,” he said. And he got it, this one stretching out to 230-5. “Damn,” he said. “I’ve still got to catch Jay [Silvester’s never-recognized 230-11] and Faina [Melnik’s new women’s WR of 231-3] .” He did that too, with throw No. 3.
That one firmly established him as the all-time farthest discus thrower. A superb 232-6 (70.86 meters).
Three throws, three world records. Even with the remaining three throws tailing off at 219’9″, 223’4″ and 218’5″, it has to be one of the greatest throwing series’ ever.
And yet Wilkins was almost apologetic in his post-competition assessment.
From the Associated Press account of May 2, 1976:
“I felt good. I wanted to peak for this meet,” said Wilkins. But he added things could have gone even better.
“I hate to say my technique is off, but it is. It just wasn’t there. If everything had gone right, I feel I could have thrown 8 or 10 feet more.”
Later in Eugene, my wife and I watched from the stands as Wilkins won the trials.with a mere toss of 224’2″. Powell and Sylvester rounded out the US Olympic discus team. Later that summer, as we viewed the action from our living room, Wilkins went on to get his Olympic record and gold medal in Montreal, launching the disc 224′ even.
Powell took bronze behind Wolfgang Schmidt of the German Democratic Republic.
Wilkins would eventually further his personal best throw to 232’10” and make the US Olympic teams for 1980, 1984 and 1988, claiming a silver medal in the ’84 Los Angeles Games.
As would be expected from someone who has had such an investment in his sport, Wilkins continues to be seriously involved. His Mac Wilkins Throws Academy, just outside Portland, Ore., is his way of giving back.
And in spite of staying with me for over 40 years, I’m not sure my wife has yet gotten over that crush.
Rojofact: On June 6, 1986, late in Wilkins’ career, East Germany’s Jurgen Schult launched a monster world record throw of 243 feet (74.08 meters). It has not been breached in 27 years.