IN EDITION No. 5 of our ongoing series of recapping fabulous head-to-head matchups as they were reported in T&FN, here — in 3 pieces from our vaults — is how an amazing high hurdle rivalry played out from the late ’70s to the early ’90s.
Rivalries Don’t Get Any Archer Than This
Hurdling across parts of three decades, Greg Foster and Renaldo Nehemiah battled for barrier supremacy — and it pretty much was a draw.
by Sieg Lindstrom (May 2006)
“Every great champion needs a rival.” That’s what hurdle legend Renaldo Nehemiah tells client Justin Gatlin.
He doesn’t mean it literally. Nehemiah — now a high-level athlete agent — knows that Sergey Bubka and others have reigned without challengers. But Nehemiah cannot forget the magic of his own run at the top in the 110H — a run that would never have been quite as special without arch-rival Greg Foster.
Nehemiah’s 4 seasons of No. 1 World Rankings (1978–81), starting when he was just a Maryland frosh, would never have meant as much without Foster’s breathing down his neck, and on occasion beating him.
Rivalries take on lives of their own. What if Foster and Nehemiah had never banged heads to start the ’78 outdoor season with a 2-meet sequence of close 1-2 finishes? What if Foster, a UCLA soph that year, hadn’t won the NCAA and Nehemiah the USATF meet? What if they hadn’t finished 1-2 four more times that summer?
Perhaps the track world’s fervid imagination would never have paired them off. Neither man will ever know, for that was the path talent and fate selected.
Speed and youth made the matchups sizzle. In the seasons before track slipped backwards in U.S. sports sections through the publicity vacuum of the ’80 Moscow Olympic boycott, front page headlines told the tale. Foster ran 13.22 — just 0.01 off the then-World Record — to win the ‘78 NCAA (see following article). Nehemiah’s 2nd brought the No. 4 all-time mark of 13.27.
Nehemiah hurdled to 0.01 behind Foster’s best that year, and just 3 weeks after his 20th birthday opened ‘79 with a 13.16 WR in April.
Later that month at the Penn Relays, Nehemiah anchored three baton squads and skipped the open hurdles with the comment, “I’ve got a hurdle race at UCLA next week against Greg Foster and I felt I needed my strength. You know that I have sort of a deal going with Foster.”
On Foster’s home track, Nehemiah faced not only his rival but also [former] WR holder Alejandro Casañas of Cuba. He scored a knockout, lowering the WR to 13-flat.
Foster crashed hurdles — seeding a popular conception that Nehemiah could crack his concentration — and fell by hurdle 5.
The ’79 NCAA (see following article) showed similar results for both-a windy 12.91 win for Nehemiah, Foster chopping wood (see photo) — and the inescapable conclusion that when these young men met, crazy times followed.
“It obviously catapulted us into the front pages of the sport and of sports in general,” Nehemiah says. “I think when you have a rivalry and you know, that at your next competition your rival’s going to be there, you obviously have to come to the game ready and prepared to put out your best performance because you know that competitor’s going to do the same.
“So there was never a moment where I took Foster for granted, and I’m sure he didn’t take me for granted. It definitely was a great motivator.”
Says Foster, himself also now an agent (and real-estate developer), “You only get better running against the best, and I think for both of us, in order for us to get better we had to run against each other.
“Not to knock anyone else, but I think we felt that when we were going to go head to head that we needed to mind our P’s and Q’s and make sure we were ready. Not that anyone else couldn’t step up and win, but we just knew how each other’s competitiveness was.”
Then there was the contrast in styles: the smooth, technical Nehemiah listed at 6-¾/157 versus Foster (6-3/180), whose size and stride verged on excessive for the cramped space between hurdles.
“It was David & Goliath,” Nehemiah says. “I was the little guy. I kind of had a little charm, if you will, and I used that to my advantage. I set him up purposely a lot of times, knowing that he would push me away. I knew it pissed him off.
“The cameras would be there. When I’d won, I’d purposely go over to him even though I knew emotionally he wasn’t ready to even see me, and I would force him to show his emotional hand. It played right into what I needed to continue to do, which was to build up my image and my fan base.”
Foster laughs about it now. He says, “It was a love-hate relationship: ‘They love to run against each other but they hate each other’ kind of thing. I don’t think we really hated each other; I think we just hated the competitiveness in each other and having to deal with each other on a weekly basis.
“When you’re young you’re a little bit angrier, you don’t handle things as well. So if you had the loss — l mean I was always devastated, no matter who I lost against at that point.”
While consistently bringing out his best, Foster beat Nehemiah twice in ’80 and ’81, and rolled to No. 2 all-time in 13.03 behind Nehemiah’s 12.93 WR at Zürich in ’81.
Thereafter the hurdlers’ story turned vaguely allegorical, at first trading David & Goliath for tortoise & hare overtones. Frustrated by track’s slow emergence from amateurism, Nehemiah left the event at which he was perhaps the best ever for a pro football career of little distinction.
Foster found consistency that led to 5 No. 1 World Rankings and a lock on the first 3 World Championships titles but he never ran another PR.
With the sport having kicked its shamateur roots, Nehemiah returned to hurdling in’86, a quasi-prodigal son. He gamely fought his way back to world class and victories on the circuit, but never back to the top.
Foster owned the rivalry’s second half until, fittingly, the pair split their last four meetings and Nehemiah won the last with an indoor win in Madrid in ’92.
Looking Beyond The Mere Numbers
After their last meeting, in March ’92, the Renaldo Nehemiah/Greg Foster head-to-head record (see chart) favored the former by 31-30-1 — essentially even-steven. Nehemiah won 12-11-1 indoors and they were 19-19 outdoors. But something about the rivalry transcended the unadorned facts.
Consider: After their first Nationals clashes in ‘78, they did not meet again in a USATF final for 13 years. They raced each other just once more for NCAA glory, never for the U.S. indoor crown, never in an OT final, never for a world title, and Roger Kingdom won the two meaningful Olympic golds of their era.
Neither hurdler won their first meeting — at the Ali Indoor of January ‘78. There is irony in that. Foster won the first running that night, but the hurdles had been misplaced, the race was re-run and Dedy Cooper prevailed as the soon-to-be dead-heating duo placed 3-4.
It was not until their 43rd meeting that another hurdler would again beat them both at once — an occurrence that happened only 6 times ever, and not at all in their last 5 meetings.
Now that’s a rivalry!
Greg Foster was a year ahead of Renaldo Nehemiah in school, and with Skeets turning pro a year early that meant they only clashed twice at the NCAA Championships, each meeting featuring highly significant marks.
1978 NCAA Championships
by Jon Hendershott (August 1978)
Eugene, Oregon, June 02 — “It’s a surprising time considering the number of hurdles I hit.”
Greg Foster spoke softly, barely audibly, as he sat on the practice field behind Stevenson Track where several minutes earlier he had won the high hurdles in 13.22, an American Record and just one tantalizing 1/100-of-a-second off the World mark of Alejandro Casañas.
But Foster wasn’t celebrating. His right knee was swathed in ice bags and bandages and his spirits were sagging even though he had clipped 0.02 from the then-World Record which won Rod Milburn the ’72 Olympic title.
“I’ve had this hurt knee since February. I overstretched a tendon on the outside of it,” he said, as he slowly stood and gingerly put weight on his leg. He had swerved to avoid an onlooker while doing a hurdle session during a February workout.
In straining to get to the finish line first ahead of frosh sensation Renaldo Nehemiah — who set off his own fireworks with a World Junior Record 13.27 — Foster’s knee began to go. Then the UCLA sophomore had to swerve once again, this time to avoid a photographer. He went down and was on the track for several minutes before hobbling to the practice field.
He was happy about winning, but depressed that he wouldn’t be able to run the mile relay later on Friday: “Now this happens. The knee hurts me only when I hit hurdles and I hit several today.”
Foster, Nehemiah and UCLA’s defending champ James Owens made the highs a 3-man race this year. They came to Eugene with 3 of the 4 fastest times by collegians (Dedy Cooper had the other) and when they drew lanes 3-4-5 for the final, everyone knew where to look.
All the preliminary rounds had been wind-aided and, naturally, the fastest heats had come from the Big 3 (Foster 13.38, Owens 13.52, Nehemiah 13.54). Foster thrashed Cooper in the semis, 13.37–13.58, while Nehemiah had overcome Owens’ typical blitz start for a 13.46–13.55 outcome.
JO started the final as usual, like a bullet. Nehemiah wasn’t all that far behind, though, and Foster was clearly 3rd as they rose to the first barrier.
Nehemiah took command by the fifth barrier, with Foster bearing down, as Owens settled back to 3rd where he finished in a PR 13.46. By the eighth Foster had caught Nehemiah and they raced on even terms between 9 and 10.
Over the final obstacle, Foster opened a lead of maybe 12 inches and held it to the tape. Nehemiah tipped the last hurdle and then put on a big lean at the wire, still going for the win.
“I have run better races,” Foster analyzed later. “I hit the first hurdle; I got on top of it too fast. I didn’t pump my arms over the first two, but then when I started pumping I started to hit hurdles. I think I hit them all between 4 and 7.
“My first step off the last hurdle, the pain shot through my knee. But I never saw the photographer. My knee was just weak and gave out. It just wasn’t a good race for me.”
’78 NCAA Results (wind 1.8)
1. **Greg Foster (UCLA) 13.22 AR, CR; 2. ***Renaldo Nehemiah (Md) 13.27 WJR, AJR; 3. James Owens (UCLA) 13.46; 4. *Donnie Taylor (Ar St) 13.66; 5. Andy Roberts (Snll) 13.68; 6. **Dan Lavitt (Mo) 13.77; 7. *Garnett Edwards (WV) 14.00; 8. *Dedy Cooper (SJSt) 14.04.
1979 NCAA Championships
by Jim Dunaway (August 1979)
Champaign, Illinois, June 01 — Perhaps, like a pack of cigarettes, Renaldo Nehemiah should be required to carry a warning label: “Caution: trying to keep up with me may be dangerous to your hurdling.”
The final was supposed to be a showdown between America’s two fastest-ever high hurdlers, but more than one side bet was made that Greg Foster would not finish.
By itself, the first semi would qualify as a great race. Foster won that in 13.28, his No. 2 performance ever and =8th fastest ever (and the fastest non-final ever).
A 2.6 “aiding” wind in the second semi seemed to give Nehemiah more trouble than help. He hit hurdles 8 and 9 and was visibly off balance before easing to a 13.43w.
As the finalists took off their sweats 50 minutes later, a swelling murmur of excitement boiled from the 6000-odd onlookers, which included Foster’s parents and many supporters from Maywood, the Chicago superb where Foster lives.
As the eight got into their blocks, silence fell spontaneously. The wind freshened. It would average 3.5 during the race, but most of the hurdlers felt a strong gust halfway down the track.
In the stillness; the starter, the gun. Foster reached the first hurdle marginally ahead, but Nehemiah was at least even coming off it. Nehemiah inched ahead as Foster ticked the third. Each knocked over his fourth hurdle, and the fifth and sixth.
But Foster hit the 5th hard enough to lose his balance slightly and then hit the crossbar of the sixth hard enough to break it in two. (“There were wood chips everywhere,” said another hurdler). He continued to run, knocking over the seventh with his hands before running over it, then stopped at the eighth barrier.
Nehemiah also hit the eighth hurdle and knocked it over, but went on with no real mishap to win by more than 6m in 12.91.
Nehemiah said he eased up over the last 3 hurdles when he knew something had happened to Foster. “I was not aggressive over the last 3 hurdles,” he said, “because of the wind. I was afraid of it making me fall. It can throw you off and cause you to lose it.”
Said Foster, “I felt good over the first five hurdles. Coming off 5, the wind pushed me a little and I got too close.”
Indoor runner-up Garnett Edwards, who had set a PR 13.48 in his semi, had a midrace misadventure very much like Foster’s, bashing the 5th hurdle, tripping over the 7th and almost stopping at the 8th before finishing last in 16.43 (windy, yet).
Chief beneficiary of all the falling bodies was Big 10 champion Dan Oliver, who took 2nd in 13.55. His comment was trenchant: “Anytime Foster gets next to Nehemiah, he’s going to bite the dirt, because Nehemiah gets ahead of him and Foster changes his style.
“You can hear Nehemiah go pop-pop-pop between the hurdles, and Foster goes stride-stride-stride.”
The 12.91 was, of course, the fastest automatically timed race yet, albeit wind-aided. But this writer suspects that by the time you read this, Nehemiah will have bettered it legally. The 20-year-old from Scotch Plains is a fast learner, and there was a lot to be learned in today’s racing.
1979 NCAA Results (wind 3.5)
1. **Renaldo Nehemiah (Md) 12.91w; 2. *Dan Oliver (OhSt) 13.55w; 3. James Walker (Aub) 13.60w; 4. Doc King (Rice) 13.61w; 5. Steve Darcus (Tn) 13.75w; 6. Phil Bransom (Or) 13.99w; 7. Garnett Edwards (WV) 16.43w;… dnf — *Greg Foster (UCLA). □