Skeets Nehemiah Knows All About Life's Obstacles: He's the World Champ at Hurdling Over Them

updated 07/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A couple of months ago Renaldo Nehemiah and his roommate, long jumper Bobby Calhoun, were resting before a track meet when Calhoun idly started doing back flips off his bed. Nehemiah couldn't resist the challenge. Calhoun, impressed though not surprised, recalls, "He started doing flips off his bed and didn't stop until he did them better than me."

That determination and seemingly limitless physical talent have made Nehemiah, 20, what many regard as the best high hurdler of all time. The University of Maryland sophomore has set five world records at distances ranging from 50 yards to 110 meters and rebroken his own records five times. In perhaps his most dramatic race, last May in Los Angeles he set a world mark of 13 seconds flat for the 110 meters, decisively beating his top rivals, UCLA junior Greg Foster and Cuba's Alejandro Casañas, even though Casañas got away with an obvious false start. (Before the race Casañas had sneered at Nehemiah's easygoing disposition, saying, "Nehemiah talks too much.")

Then at the AAU championships last week Nehemiah took the 110 in a meet record time of 13.19 to qualify for the Pan Am Games, which open July 1 in Puerto Rico.

"I just concentrate on letting my body flow," explains the 6'1", 170-lb. Nehemiah. "I don't want running to feel like something learned."

Nehemiah's coach, Frank Costello, calls Renaldo (nicknamed "Skeets" as a baby because he crawled so fast) "the premier track athlete of our time" and says he could be a world-class athlete in the dashes, the long jump and the 400-meter intermediate hurdles if he trained for them. Nehemiah in fact skipped the hurdles at a national meet in May, winning the 100-and 200-meter dashes and anchoring Maryland's champion 400-meter relay team. "You can have the speed and everything else," Costello adds, "but not many kids have the mental toughness Skeets has."

Born in Scotch Plains, N.J., the oldest of three children, Renaldo was such a standout high school quarterback that he was offered several football scholarships. But by his senior year he was committed to the hurdles, and he entered Maryland in 1977. Though he lost in his first two meets, Nehemiah was ranked No. 1 in the world by the end of 1978.

His father, Earl, 53, a mechanic, believes that Skeets began maturing as an athlete after his mother died in 1973 of lung cancer. "When I was at work he was in charge of dividing up the work with his brother and sister," says the elder Nehemiah. "Maybe that gave him the leadership ability he seems to possess."

An accounting major at Maryland, Skeets manages only a C average but insists "School is my No. 1 priority, not track. I don't want to be recognized just for track. I'm a curious individual trying to learn a lot of things." ("He's No. 1 in the world," adds roomie Calhoun, "but he never brags. It would never go to his head.")

Eventually Nehemiah hopes for a career in business or a TV job doing track-and-field commentary. Though he has not ruled out pro football, his main interest, he says, is to make the 1980 and 1984 Olympics.

To that end he works out two hours a day, five days a week, and track experts have predicted Nehemiah will soon officially smash the 13-second barrier for the 110-meter high hurdles. (He was recently clocked at 12.91, but a tail wind qualified the time.)

His proud father, who often takes home movies of his son at meets, is already working on plans to carry his camera to Moscow. "Every parent dreams of something like this," says Earl. "I should be pinching myself to see if it's true."

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