Track Coach

I Can Do This — An Interview with Renaldo Nehemiah


Renaldo “Skeets” Nehemiah was in his hurdling prime when this picture was taken in 1981. Nehemiah broke the 110H WR three times 1979-1981 and his 12.93 at Zurich in 1981 was history’s first sub-13.1. Renaldo, do you remember the first time you 3-stepped the hurdles and thinking – I can do this?        Photo by PETER PROBST

I was first introduced to the hurdles in 9th grade. There was much talk of advancing from five steps to three steps. I could not generate enough adrenaline and speed to actually do 3-stepping in practice. However, my coach Larry Thomas convinced me that on race day, I would be able to 3-step. And it happened as he said; I ran three steps for approximately seven hurdles, before I started thinking about what I was actually doing in the race and then 5-stepped the remaining 2-3 hurdles. I won the race.

2. What is your earliest memory of sport? Was this a big part of your family?

I played Pop Warner Football (Junior Raiders League) at the age of 10. I also played Little League Baseball, Recreation Basketball League, and I participated in a Bowling League. The other sports from approximately the same age.

3. Prior to high school did you play other sports or was it track & field right from the start?

I played football and basketball and baseball primarily prior to high school. Our 9th grade was considered Junior High School back then. That’s when I was first introduced to track & field as a sport.

4. Did you have relatives or older siblings involved in track & field or other sports that influenced your decision?

I’m the oldest of three, and my brother is 1 ½ years younger. So, we played together on our football and basketball teams. Our father was our influence. Although he didn’t go to college, he did play football in high school. And he coached us on both our football and basketball teams.

5. You were an accomplished football player in high school playing quarterback. How did you come to focus on track and field? Were the hurdles always your first choice event?

I got injured during a game via a late hit and fractured my rib, thus, ending my football season. My track coach was quite pleased by that outcome, which would enable me to rest and recover and focus entirely on track. The hurdles were my first love from day one. From the time I watched Rodney Milburn running in 1975, I was hooked. I was still one of the fastest sprinters on my team. But, nothing did it for me quite like the hurdles. The thrill of being in the air while still maintaining my balance. Yet, having the strength to get down off the hurdles without falling was fascinating to me.

6. Your high school already had a nationally prominent track program as you entered high school. Were you around when Vince Cartier set the national indoor high school record in the mile?

I wasn’t on the same team as Vince because I was still in Junior High School when he set the national record. I got to meet Vince once I arrived at Scotch Plains-Fanwood H.S.

7. Did you regularly run the 330IH throughout high school? Did you do other events in high school other than the hurdles?

As a hurdler, Coach Jean Poquette mandated that I would run both the 120 yd and 330 yd hurdles. Meters hadn’t yet arrived nationally. I also ran the 400m on the mile relay and the 200m. I was allowed to run the 100m only once during our conference championships my senior year.

8. You set the national high school record for the 120HH in 12.9ht. That spring, was the goal to just get the record or was going under 13 seconds the goal?

When I set the national record in the 120 yd hurdles, my goal was the break the national record of 13.2. I also broke the national record in the 330 yd hurdles, running 35.88.

9. Do you remember much about that race?

Running 12.9 was memorable for the following reasons. We weren’t allowed to use starting blocks for the trials and semi-finals. I ran 13.1 in the trials and 13.00 in the semi-finals. They measured the track and said it was 1 inch short. For the finals, we were allowed to use starting blocks, and the track was measured to ensure it was exactly 120 yds. I ran 12.9 in the Finals. I basically broke the national record three times that day, with the actual final race being official.

10. Later that summer you set the high school record over the 42’s. Was moving up to the higher height a difficult transition for you?

Moving up from 39” to 42” was not difficult at all. Primarily because Coach Poquette had me practicing over the 42” hurdles. He also had me race over the 42’s against the other hurdlers who ran over the 39’s during our dual meets. He was constantly challenging me.

11. Regarding hurdle technique. What was your mindset when you hit a hurdle?

Coach Poquette spent a lot of time on my technique, wanting me to be graceful like a dancer. The few times I did hit a hurdle was due to me running faster and being consumed by my speed instead of my technique. Once I engrained my technique, I could focus more and more on my speed.

Nehemiah starred at the 1979 Penn Relays, with a win in the shuttle hurdle relay (above) and phenomenal come-from-behind victories in the 4×200 and 4×400 relays.   Photo by GALE CONSTABLE/DUOMO

12. You had a body posture clearing a hurdle that was more upright (less of a tuck) than many of your competitors. Was that something you were taught or did it just come naturally?

Hurdling from the beginning was always a feel sport for me. Thus, I ran for the smooth effortless feeling. I was extremely flexible. So, running upright may have looked awkward for some, but , it wasn’t for me due to my leg flexibility and core strength. I also took gymnastics in high school and martial arts (karate).

13. Seven steps to the first hurdle – that seems to be the new trend. Did you experiment with this?

I only used 8 steps to the first hurdle. We practiced 7 steps and I could run 7 steps. However, I never liked the way running 7 steps felt. It felt slower and I had to get upright out of the blocks immediately. Eight steps allowed me to sprint more aggressively right out of the blocks.

What people don’t know is that my block setting was back far enough that my actual first step almost landed on the start line, making my next step almost equal to that of the first step of a 7 stepper, with much more turnover and frequency. By the way, I was never beaten to the first hurdle. Eight steps always outran the 7 steps.

14. One of the problems many topflight hurdlers have is that they become “too fast” during the race and come up on the next hurdle too soon. Was there a mindset or rhythm you repeated to keep yourself in check and avoid crashing the next hurdle?

I was no different than any other hurdler with the spacing problems between the hurdles. I just had quicker feet. I was actually too fast in between the hurdles and it was problematic for me oftentimes. I couldn’t run as fast as I wanted due to the lack of space between the hurdles, due to my speed. Then we started attacking the right post and not going over the middle of the hurdle in order to have a bit more space to attack. I was an attacking lead leg hurdler. The faster my lead leg the more powerful my trail leg was, giving me enormous power off the hurdle and into the next hurdle.

15. In 1985 or ‘86 I taught at a clinic with Roger Kingdom. I asked him what he was thinking as he came off the last hurdle in Los Angeles to upset Greg Foster for the gold medal. He told me he did what his brother taught him when he was just getting started, “1-2-3-4-5-dive!” Did you have a word cue you used off the last hurdle?

My only thought coming off the last hurdle was to attack it aggressively and cleanly, and it would thrust me forward enabling me to sprint to the line. I wanted to be in sprinting position leaning forward off of it. If I managed that position, I could outsprint anyone to the finish line.

16. Who were some of your early role models in sport? Did you idolize any of the top hurdlers of the day?

As I said, I idolized Harrison Dillard, Rodney Milburn, Guy Drut, Martin Lauer, Willie Davenport, Dr. Thomas Hill, Larry Shipp.

17. You chose Maryland for your college. They were a perennial IC4A power more known for their strength in the field events, as I recall. What made you chose Maryland?

I chose Maryland because I had the best time on my recruiting trip. They didn’t try to oversell me. When I visited USC in Los Angeles, I was told all of the greats come there and if I wanted to be great, I’d come there too.

18. Do you consider the 1979 Penn Relays as your college highlight? You had a weekend that has gone down in the history of that meet as legendary. You won the shuttle hurdles relay, anchored the 4×2 with a sub-20-second split (19.4r)and anchored the winning 4×4 with a 44-point split (44.3r). How much do you remember about that meet?

The Penn Relays is legendary as told by those in attendance. My memory was quite different. It was filled with frustration and pain. Frustration because we (Maryland) were losing badly during both the 4 x 200 and 4 x 400 relays. Pain, because I had to overcome deficits that on the surface seemed impossible. In both cases, I ran somewhat angry and only wanted to have us look respectable. But, there’s something about running at the Penn Relays, and the 3rd turn before the homestretch. I’ve always said the Penn Relays are where legends are born. So, I guess that was the case for me that day. Winning multiple relays. I continue to acknowledge my impact that day even today. Countless people I don’t know will say to me that they were there that day in ‘79.

19. You had run a 35-point 330IH in high school and your 44-second relay leg created quite a buzz about the possibilities for the 400IH. Was that ever part of the plan? Did you even discuss that possibility with Edwin Moses?

I was always thinking about the bigger picture. Edwin Moses was king of the 400 hurdles and I was king of the 110’s. If we were to meet, then there would only be one king. Patriotically, I thought two kings was better than one. Two American kings at that. Besides, I enjoyed being able to talk after my 110h races. If I couldn’t speak after my 44 legs on the 4 x400 relays, there’s no way adding 10 hurdles over that distance would be any better.

20. That 1979 season was your last season of college track & field. You were one of the first college track athletes to leave college early. This was a year after America’s pro track league, the International Track Association, had just gone out of business. There were no shoe contracts at the time and sponsorship or endorsements from companies were not possible due to the amateur “rules” of the day. What was your plan for the immediate and near future?

Actually, there were shoe sponsorships as a result of “Trust Funds”, that the TAC [The Athletics Congress] allowed amateur athletes to set up for training and living expenses. When I relinquished my scholarship at the University of Maryland, it was because I signed a 5-year $125,000 deal with Puma, of which $50,000 annually went to TAC, leaving me with $75,000 annually. That was the cost of sponsorships to an amateur track athlete at the time.

21. Moscow 1980 is a painful subject, to this day for the Olympians who were denied their Olympic experience because of the U.S. boycott. In the time leading up to the official announcement, did you think the boycott would actually happen? How difficult was the news of the announcement?

Leading up to the boycott, I was hoping as a result of the “Miracle on Ice” during the Winter Olympics, we Summer Olympians would get our shot too. Even though it didn’t look promising, I still entered our Olympic Trials in case of a last minute decision. I was going to represent our country in every way possible. Of course, I was devastated by the boycott. Training for years for our one shot to win gold. And seeing other veterans who would never have another chance to qualify due to their age. It took me almost 20 years to actually talk about it.

22. Did you ever talk with West Germany’s Thomas Munkelt (the Moscow 110H champ) about his race? And did he ever beat you head up?

I never talked to Dr. Thomas Munkelt about his winning the Olympic Gold. I congratulated him. Yet, I knew he wouldn’t have beaten me on that day. I don’t believe he ever beat me. He came close at the World Cup in Montreal in ‘79.

23. How much did the boycott of Moscow influence you to “look elsewhere?” You were quite a success in the Superstars competitions being the only 4x champion. Did that success give you an idea about trying pro football?

I actually never thought about looking elsewhere after the Boycott. It was during my participation in the Superstars competition in 1981 that I met Dwight Clark of the 49ers. They had just won the Super Bowl. He and Cris Collinsworth were there as participants. In speaking to them both, they thought I was a phenomenal athlete and that the NFL, specifically Bill Walsh, would love a talent like me. I voiced that since I didn’t play in college, I wouldn’t get drafted. They asked me if I would play and I responded affirmatively, “What red-blooded American boy wouldn’t want to play in the NFL”. It’s America’s favorite pastime.

The next morning Bill Walsh called my room. I initially thought it was a joke being played on me by Dwight and Cris, so I hung up on Coach Walsh. He called me back shortly, and I told him that if he truly was Bill Walsh to call my agent, and promptly hung up again. Later that afternoon, my agent called me and immediately asked me if I hung up on Bill Walsh? I couldn’t believe it was actually him, and the rest is history.

24. You played for the San Francisco 49ers, the most dominant football team of the 1980’s and won a Super Bowl Championship with them. In retrospect how satisfying was that experience?

I enjoyed most of my experience with the Niners. Great team, great players and great coaches. However, once I was hurt and knocked unconscious during the Atlanta Falcons game in 1983, Bill Walsh personally told me that he didn’t want to see me hurt like that again. And that inevitably affected the amount of playing time I would consistently get from that point on. To my credit, Coach Walsh was a fan of mine prior to coming to the Niners. And he didn’t want to expose the “World’s Greatest Hurdler” to an injury like that.

25. One of the things that gets reported on frequently is the shot you took. This was in the pre-concussion days when players were pretty much expected to “walk it off” or worse, laugh it off. Any long-term consequences from that hit?

I have no long term consequences from that hit by Kenny Johnson. I’ve even submitted to the NFL’s concussion protocol testing.

26. You spent three years in the NFL and decided to return to track & field. The IAAF was not for it. You had to present your case and appeal to the IAAF to be allowed to compete again. What was that experience like?

I actually spent four years in the NFL. My 4th season I was placed on injured reserve due to a torn L4 & L5 disc injury that happened during a preseason game in Buffalo. My reinstatement battle lasted 4 ½ years. I was able to sustain the legal battle due to the finances I earned from playing in the NFL. I had never lost a legal battle at any Judicial level. Yet. Primo Nebiolo, the then IAAF president, strong-armed TAC and the IAAF to not allow me to compete since I went to the NFL. It was only after it started costing the IAAF significant dollars in defending itself, did they offer me the option to return to track. It basically came down to them offering me reinstatement if I’d stop playing professional football. I wish they had said that earlier. Track & field became an official professional sport during the 1983 World Championships. Thus, athletes like Carl Lewis were now making more money running than I was playing football.

27. Did you feel that there was more than a little hypocrisy since you had to be aware of the under-the-table payments that were going on for years?

That was just the times that we lived in back then. I didn’t necessarily see it as hypocrisy since we were making a lot of money, $500, $1,000 here and there. The night I broke the World Record of 12.93, I earned $4,000. I thought I hit the jackpot.

28. Your status is restored, you can compete again and you get the chance to compete at the Zurich Weltklasse again. What was it about that facility that always seemed to bring out outstanding performances for you?

Competing in Zurich was at the time the Utopian event of our times. It was billed as the biggest and best meet in the world. The buildup and pressure to perform was enormous. And I thrived on it. I always wanted to show and proved how good I was. That I was the best. It was where the best athletes were invited and where I wanted to beat the best. It was “The Defining Moment” for me.

29. Was 1991 your last year in pro track? You were ranked 4th in the world in the 110H. The track career is winding down. Was there something in the back of your mind telling you that you should become an agent for athletes?

I actually retired in 1992. After another setback, I had to realize that my body was no longer able to sustain the training it took. While I was running prior to retirement, I got certified as a financial advisor. I worked every off season with The Equitable and Equico Securities. Within a few years, I was offered a named partner at a brokerage firm. It was during my time there that athletes were calling on me to represent them. Over time, I relented and actually did both, the financial advising and athlete representation. It was only after about six or so years, that I realized that being an agent and traveling around the world, wasn’t sustainable in the brokerage business. I couldn’t be on a plane in another country, or another time zone, and still be able to handle a particular client’s transaction at a moment’s notice. So, I relinquished my brokerage licenses and became a full-time athletes’ representative.

30. How did you get started as an athlete’s agent?

I got started with Brad Hunt of Gold Medal Management in Boulder, CO. I worked with Brad for just under two years. I didn’t like commuting 10 days a month to Boulder, coupled with the extensive travel that came with the job. I was living in Maryland and I contacted Tom George, who I had met during my early running days. Tom was the VP at Octagon and he arranged an interview with their President. They wanted to revamp their Olympic division with a track & field division. Ironically, Brad Hunt started there years before I arrived. He left to start his own agency in Colorado. I was hired in December of 1998 and worked there 13 years until August of 2011. I left to start my own management and marketing company.

31. Did track & field have a large clientele at Octagon before you arrived?

Octagon had an Olympics division with swimming and speedskating. So, track also fell under that umbrella. I actually knew more than anyone at Octagon about track, due to my experience in it for so many years. I also got to cut my teeth in track & field management at Gold Medal Management prior to Octagon, learning under Brad Hunt.

32. What was your job description there and how has it changed to what you are doing today?

I was the Director of Track and Field Worldwide. There has been no change from then to now, except that I don’t have to report to a hierarchy.

33. I’m sure you have some athletes with the potential to generate a lifetime’s financial security from their athletic careers. There is a stunning statistic that 80% of pro athletes declare bankruptcy within five years of ending their career. I just finished reading a biography of Muhammed Ali and it was discouraging to see the extent to which he was fleeced by his handlers over the course of his career. How do you, as an agent, communicate with your athletes so that does not happen to them?

For starters, I try not to work with athletes who don’t value a college education. The sport still allows the athlete to go to school. Our professional season doesn’t truly commence until most spring semesters end in May. I managed Allyson Felix, Sanya Richards, and Kirani James. All of them turned pro but stayed in school and graduated. I also try to assist them in getting a good financial advisor and accountant. I also try to have them invest in themselves for the first 3-4 years. Continuing to live like they’re in college, building up a solid investment platform. And of course, pay their taxes.

34. I have no doubt there are agents that run the gamut from Mother Teresa to the devil incarnate. What are some basic tenets you adhere to that represent guiding principles?

My most important characteristic is in honoring my family name. My father worked hard to give me a good name. And my family name means more to me than any client. I’ve built up good equity in my name. Thus, I let every client know that. As it should also be for them as well. I have a known name, so, I play by the rules. It allows me to sleep comfortably at night.

35. As mentioned earlier you were one of the first track athletes to leave college early. Nowadays some athletes are forgoing college altogether. The results seem mixed, at best. What advice would you give those individuals?

It varies for each athlete. They have to do their homework and ensure that whatever contract they sign isn’t for short money. Otherwise, the contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. If they’re leaving early, they must insist on guarantees, for as many years as possible.

36. One of the unique things about track & field is as one transitions from novice to elite status one transitions from “one among many” to a situation where there are “many for one” with the “many” being coaches, masseurs, agents, parents, friends, family, press, NGB’s, spouses, children and the list goes on and on. Who is in charge of this show? Do you have any advice or guidelines for an athlete trying to prepare their “team?”

There’s no precise answer to your question. Everyone, coaches, parents, friends, etc., all add their own biases into the process. It’s not an easy process, because no one truly knows the truth of the business until they’re actually in it. My primary emphasis is that the athlete has to love the sport. And that love will take them as far as they desire to go. Today, everyone’s emphasis is on how much money they can make. And how many marketing opportunities can they acquire. All before they’ve actually accomplished anything. Hopefully, the parents and family have the athletes best interest at heart, and not their own interest. Meaning, they will do a thorough due diligence into the process. Talk to as many people as possible. Visit with at least 3-4 prospective agents. And allow the athlete to be involved throughout the process.

37. From your current perspective you get to see the sport at its highest levels. What are two things you’d like to see changed and two things you hope continue into the near future?

I’d love to see a wider range of meets for professional athletes to participate in here in the U.S. With those meets being able to be on par financially with the meets abroad. I’d love to see Network television making an annual commitment to track & field coverage. Not only during the Olympic and World Championship years. If there was significantly more prize money to be earned, I believe the best athletes would compete against one another with regularity. Unfortunately, with the apparel companies holding the lifelines of the athlete’s incomes, it interferes with the competitive nature that our sport should reflect, due to the sport being based on wins and losses and rankings. Our sport truly only rewards the top three in the world in every event. The sport is all about medals on a given (Olympic) year, than any other year. Achieving those medals dramatically impacts an athlete’s ability to enhance his/her earnings.

38. From a distance it seems like you have lived a charmed life. National high school record holder, NCAA champion, Penn Relays legend, Olympian, world record holder, Super Bowl Champion. Do you ever look back on all this and wonder how it all happened? Did you ever think that simply 3-stepping the hurdles would lead to all this?

I’ve remained humble throughout my journey. I conveyed a mindset that nothing I achieved made me better than anyone else. Having a front row seat to everything I accomplished was the best it could get. And once I left the playing fields, I was just like everyone else, and no different. That humility kept me grounded. Did I know that I was blessed with gifts, yes. But, my faith in God, enabled me to recognize who should get all the glory. I was just the vessel being used to glorify Him. When I first started running organized track in the 9th grade. It was the words spoken to me from my coach and math teacher, Mr. Larry Thomas. He told me that if I worked hard, I might be able to earn a college scholarship. Those simple words inspired me to work as hard as I could in pursuit of that scholarship, in an effort to make my father proud. I knew I wanted to go to college. I was in pursuit of an education; not NCAA titles or World Records or Olympic Teams or Hall of Fames or Professional Football. My daughters weren’t born when I was doing my thing in track or football. They basically had to rely on their friends and their friends’ parents to boast to them over my accomplishments. It wasn’t until recently when I received a copy of about an hour’s worth of races, that my daughters finally saw for themselves what I had accomplished. Yes, they had seen my World Record race in Zurich in 1981. But, that was just one race. I never allowed just athletics to define me. I always felt I was much more than that. And if all one could say about me was that I was a great athlete, then I would feel that I had failed in life.

39. Fame and success can be a double-edged sword where one slip can send a career and life off the rails. How have you been able to handle the challenges of stardom successfully with such grace and poise?

In tandem with my love of the hurdles coupled with my athletic gifts, I never took my talent for granted. I was able to travel the world many times over, meeting countless dignitaries and persons of prominence. I was on a natural high through every experience. It couldn’t get any better than that. And I was representing my family every time and wherever I went. Most importantly, losing my mother at the young age of 14, caused me to mature rapidly. I learned at a very early age about consequences and accountability. Discipline was paramount in our home. It was taught and ingrained early. And has remained a constant in my life. And I’ve chosen to be a leader not a follower. Choosing my own path. Always striving to be that positive example for others to follow. Never striving for mediocrity. Aspiring to be my best!