Mac Wilkins’ Incredible Day: 3 Throws, 3 World Records

Mac Wilkins

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.

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Hayward Field Flashback: Michael Johnson, 1993

The world’s greatest quarter-miler has enjoyed over two decades of respect and admiration. As is true of most iconic sports figures, Michael Johnson has seemingly always been the face of his primary event—the men’s 400-meter run.

But there was a time when Johnson was shunned from the exclusive club of tried-and-true world-class 400m runners.

Fittingly, it was in the magical confines of Eugene’s Hayward Field—and the 1993 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships—where Johnson paid his dues and entered the club.

Or at least got his foot in the door.

Johnson’s credentials to that point certainly merited attention. He was undefeated lifetime in all his 400m finals races. He was the only human to have broken both the 20-second barrier in the 200m (19.79) and 44-second barrier in the 400m (43.98).

Yet his elite 400m detractors questioned his durability and conditioning. Johnson was regarded as a 200m man who only ran the 400 in single races—without having to endure the grueling qualifying rounds of say, the World Championships or Olympics.

In addition, Johnson’s relatively short physical stature and running style—leaning backward, with short choppy strides—defied the accepted convention for a true 400m runner.

Butch Reynolds: “…the 400m is a MAN’S race…”

And so, as if to make a statement in Eugene as to his conditioning, Johnson arrogantly burst into a huge lead in his preliminary heat, then casually ambled—almost walked—to the finish line in 45.62.

World record holder Butch Reynolds (43.29), seeing the gauntlet thrown down, kept his powder dry in his quarterfinal heat but then blistered the track in the semis (44.81).

Quincy Watts, the 1992 Barcelona Olympic champion (43.50) also saw Johnson’s display and was determined to overcome an injury-plagued season (only five races) and put the young upstart in his proper place.

On the final day of the championships, in the final race, eight quarter-milers approached their blocks in one of the most anticipated contests ever held on the hallowed grounds of Hayward. Even a bothersome north wind which had rudely pestered the venue all weekend, suddenly settled down for the start.

Johnson, one of the best turn runners ever and aware of the visual advantage of the inner lanes, smugly claimed his lane three assignment. Andrew Valmon, the consummate 4×400 team runner—with multiple Olympic and World gold medals in the relays—knelt in lane four.

The 6’3″ Reynolds folded himself into the blocks in five. The 1991 world champion Antonio Pettigrew settled in lane six, and way out in lane seven, Watts—blind to the rest of the field—had but one option: make like a scared rabbit and “catch me if you can”.

Derek Mills, Darnell Hall and LaMont Smith would join the chase.

As the gun went up, the tension which had been building for three days—indeed all summer—congealed into a morgue-like silence.

Watts went out hard, quickly separating himself from Valmon, Johnson and Reynolds. At 200 meters, he clocked 20.95 and looked for all the world like the reigning Olympic champion.

Quincy Watts: “…if I was going to lose, they’d have to chase me down in the woods…”

Then, at about 250 meters, Johnson hit the after-burners, with Reynolds following on his right, rear flank. Valmon seemed frozen in their wake as they shot by on either side.

Coming out of the final turn, Watts’ dull racing edge (from inactivity) betrayed him. He relinquished his position first to Johnson, then Reynolds.

In the final straight, ironically it proved to be those short sprint races Johnson had been derided for which gave him the leg speed to fend off Reynolds’ challenge.

Johnson won in a new meet and Hayward Field record time (43.74). Then, it was Reynolds (44.12), Watts (44.24) and Valmon (44.28). Pettigrew (44.45) and Mills (44.62) also finished sub-45.

If this race finally got Johnson’s foot in the door of the 400m clubhouse, then a win at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany later that August would certainly guarantee a reserved seat at the head of the bar.

And that’s exactly what happened. In Stuttgart, Johnson (43.65) and Reynolds (44.13) again finished one-two with Kenya’s Samson Kitur (44.54) third.

Maybe even more impressive was the team of Valmon, Watts, Reynolds and Johnson winning gold in the 4×400 relay in a world record time ((2:54.29). Johnson’s split time was an unbelievable 42.94.

Of course, Johnson went on to win multiple World and Olympic golds and became the most dominant 400m runner of all time. He set the current world record (43.18) in 1999.

And once again, we see that uncanny connection between the Hayward Field mystique and the world’s greatest athletes.

Watch video of both men’s and  women’s 4×400 finals at 1993 Worlds.

also published (Feb. 2011) at:

Bleacher Report

Sports Then and Now

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