“. . . The Master acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.”
-from the Tao Te Ching
When it comes to the men’s 110-meter high hurdles, all conversations begin and end with the same name: Renaldo Nehemiah. Though he no longer holds the world record, nor the American record, and though he never won an Olympic or World Championship gold medal, it still holds true that no other hurdler inspired the sense of awe that Nehemiah inspired. He is, was, and always will be, The Great One, The Master of the Art Form. A few days ago, I had the honor, the pleasure, the privilege, to speak with Renaldo about his hurdling career. Our conversation confirmed for me what I had always assumed to be true: that he is a great man, not just a great hurdler, and that his greatness as a hurdler was merely an extension of who he is as a person.
Before I begin the biographical portion of this profile, I have to say a few things for those of you out there too young to remember Nehemiah in his competitive days. Trust me, if you never saw him run, you really missed something special. I was fortunate enough to see his 12.93 world record race because my high school coach had taped it, and I can honestly say that watching that video almost brought me tears, it was so beautiful. I didn’t even know who Nehemiah was at the time because I didn’t really follow track very closely. But let me tell you, I could watch a million sunsets and never feel the completely overwhelming sense of awe that I felt while I was viewing that race. I distinctly remember two thoughts coming into my mind: 1) I want to learn how to do that, and 2) How does anybody get to be that good at what they do? No amount of words, no matter how eloquent or poetic, could do justice in describing the utterly breathtaking effortlessness with which Nehemiah ran the hurdles. Forget how fast he ran, forget how many times he broke the world record; the point I’m making here is that watching Nehemiah hurdle was like watching Van Gogh paint, like watching Miles Davis and John Coltrane perform on stage. It wasn’t mere sport; it was art, in its highest form.
The 46-year-old Nehemiah currently lives in McLean, VA, where he works for Octagon – a sports marketing company that represents athletes throughout the world in various sports. Nehemiah is the Director of Track & Field world-wide for Octagon. Athletes he represents include some of the most prominent figures in the sport of Track & Field, such as Justin Gatlin, Alyson Felix, Sanya Richards, Sheena Johnson, Sandra Glover, James Carter, and Perdita Felicien, all of whom are among the top five in the world in their respective event. Nehemiah says he got involved in financial services because he was aware that so many athletes were having troubles regarding fiscal mismanagement and keeping their financial house in order, so he “wanted to make a difference.” Being an agent puts him in a position where he can educate athletes about the business of sport on and off the track, making them stronger individuals who are less likely to struggle economically. Indeed, education is not something that Nehemiah takes lightly. He feels that too many young athletes, African-Americans in particular, seek to become professional athletes at the expense of their education. “In 2005,” he said, “ we decided to adopt a policy that an athlete has to have completed his or her college education, or be in the process of completing it. [Track] is not a team sport, so the essence of everything is education. The lack of it spills out in the way the athlete handles [fame]. It’s not as glamorous as it seems. The common denominator for those who don’t succeed is a lack of education. The way I look at it is, if you’re not educated, you’re not trying to better yourself, so you’re gonna be a headache for us. That may sound arrogant, but I’m just here to let them know that if they think they’re gonna be a professional athlete all their lives, that’s not the case. They have to be a complete person.” Nehemiah feels that he has done so well in his life after track because he did value education, and because he always made it a point during his years of athletic supremacy to treat people right. “In the final analysis,” he said, “you’ll find out if what you did in your career really meant anything when [the fans] don’t have to cheer for you anymore.”
Renaldo began his hurdling career in 1973 as a ninth-grader at Scotch Plains-Fanwood in New Jersey. He decided to try the hurdles because “everyone else was afraid of ‘em. I was fast, but really, I did it on a dare. I was enamored with the ability to run and jump at the same time; it made me feel special.” Nehemiah admits, however, that hurdling was a struggle for him at first. “Three-stepping was a very frightening thing,” he said. “In my first race in ninth grade, I started out three-stepping without even thinking about it, and I had never done it before in practice. But once I realized what I was doing, I started five-stepping, but I think I got my three-step back at the end. It was more or less a three-step gallop. But I won several of my first races; I had an eighty percent or better margin of success.”
In his sophomore year of high school, Nehemiah suffered an injury that almost put an end to his career before it ever got off the ground. He describes the injury as a “very bad hamstring/glute tear.” He did not run at all his sophomore year, then spent much of his junior year recuperating, so “my first full healthy season was my senior year.” Ironically, he doesn’t really remember how the injury occurred. “It just kind of happened,” he said. “I know that I got hurt running a shuttle hurdle relay, but I don’t know how I ripped it. I tore the hamstring attachment that goes up to the glute. It was hard to even sit down for months and months.” His injury was diagnosed and treated by an orthopedic surgeon who worked for the New York Jets, and it never recurred.
Nehemiah’s junior and senior years of high school were the years when he established the legendary work ethic that would later enable him to become a dominant hurdler in the professional ranks. Under the tutelage of Jean Poquette, Nehemiah trained for the 110’s like a middle-distance runner, and, to make a long story short, it worked. The details of the types of workouts he did are described in the profile I did on Coach Poquette, if you want to check it out. Renaldo stated that “I wasn’t a fan of those workouts initially; I frowned on it a lot. But then, I was able to hang in there, and it became a pride thing. I felt special that I was a sprinter running with the half-milers and milers. Coach used to say practice would be hard, and the races would be easy. I understood [his philosophy]. We were a volume-based, foundation-based team. My mindset was that nobody else in my event was as strong as I was.” Once Nehemiah saw that Poquette’s coaching methods were producing positive results, his resistance waned. “Over time,” he said, “when you have a good teacher, you buy into the results and don’t challenge him anymore.”
The most demanding of Poquette’s workouts was the back-and-forths – five hurdles up, five hurdles back, shuttle-hurdle style, five-stepping with the barriers twelve yards apart. Nehemiah referred to the back-and-forths as “the single most hated workout known to man,” and there was no laughter in his voice. “When [Coach] was standing there watching you, you had to do it correctly,” he said. “We’d start with sets of three, then five, then six. When I got up to three sets of ten, it was a milestone. There was no way anybody was supposed to be able to do that. But Jean always made me believe I was gonna be the strongest hurdler out there, and fatigue would never be a factor. And it never was.” What made the workout so difficult, besides the obvious volume, was that Poquette demanded quality, not just quantity. Also, as Nehemiah pointed out, up and back one time is a total of 120 yards or so of running. “I used to start adding up the distance – how many miles is this? When I got older and told people at different meets about the workouts I did in high school, they said I was out of my mind. But that’s how I was taught.”
In Nehemiah’s senior year at Scotch Plains-Fanwood, he ran personal bests of 12.9 in the 110’s and 35.8 in the 300’s. Yeah, ridiculous. He was so much better than everybody else that Poquette had to find new ways to challenge Nehemiah in order to prevent him from growing complacent in his abilities, and also to facilitate a smooth transition to the 42-inch hurdles Nehemiah would face in college. “Because I was so good,” Nehemiah said, “there was never really any contest, so Jean had me adapt to the 42’s when I was in high school. In dual meets, my competitors ran the 39’s and I ran the 42’s. And I practiced the 42’s. I didn’t wanna lose, period, so I didn’t like the fact that he made me run the 42’s. At the time, he knew I was that good, so he wanted me to be challenged. And it did help me get over the fear of not knowing how fast the other guys could run. I realized later that he would not have ever knowingly put me in a situation where I could’ve lost. You gotta remember, breaking fourteen back then was still a very decent time. I could run 13.2 any day of the week, and the guys I was running against could barely break fourteen seconds.” Another innovation Poquette employed was raising the hurdles to 45 inches in practice. I know what you’re thinking: the hurdles don’t go up that high. Well, no they don’t. So Poquette snapped up the height-adjustment levers so that the top part of the hurdle was resting on top of the bottom part, and then he’d pad the crossbar to get the extra inches. Going over 45-inch hurdles “was very scary,” Nehemiah said, but he also noted that he only did five-step workouts over those, never three-step. This workout, and all of Renaldo’s accomplishments as a high-schooler, are even more remarkable when considering the fact that he wasn’t very tall at all. Those of us who do remember seeing him race remember him as a 6’0”, 170-pound package of speed and fluidity. But Nehemiah says that “I was only five-eight or so in high school. When I graduated high school, I was five-nine, one hundred and fifty pounds.”
So how could such a small hurdler be the first and only high-schooler to run under 13.0? The intense workouts Coach Poquette had him do go a long way in providing an answer to that question, but it is also true that Nehemiah was extremely flexible, and deceptively strong. “I would goof around with gymnastics a lot,” he said. “I could do Russian splits.” For those of you who don’t know what a Russian split is (I had to look it up myself, so don’t feel dumb), it’s when you jump in the air as high as you can, with your legs spread out as widely as possible, and you reach out and grab your toes while in mid-air. Wow. Renaldo also studied martial arts, and jokes that “my sensei takes credit for my lead leg.” In regards to his strength, Nehemiah says that, in spite of the demands of Coach Poquette’s workouts, he did make time to lift weights in high school. “I was much stronger than people realize,” he said, “particularly in the adductors.” He also pointed out that, by the time he was nineteen or twenty years old, he could bench press 260 pounds. Another factor contributing to Nehemiah’s high school success that cannot be taken lightly was that he was a student of the event, and his coach was a student of the event. “I was so enamored with my event,” Renaldo said, “that I studied it a lot and did everything that was conducive to the event. I needed to be able to run without making an effort. That was my goal. Jean biomechanically studied hurdle technique, so we developed a technique that worked best for me. My greatest strength – and a lot of people don’t realize this – was my ability to adjust. And it’s a good thing, too, because I constantly had to adjust to my speed. I would get going too fast, and would have to catch up to my speed. That’s where my flexibility helped. I was very upright and flexible over the top [of the hurdle].”
From Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Nehemiah moved on to the University of Maryland, where he continued to excel as a hurdler, becoming an instant force on the national and international hurdling scene, basically revolutionizing the 110’s from the outset. Nehemiah chose Maryland because it was relatively close to home. He knew that he might get lonely at a big university far from his familiar surroundings, and that “my family probably wouldn’t be able to afford to bring me home as often as I would want to come home.” Another factor that landed Nehemiah at UMD was that the University of Tennessee – where he really wanted to go – didn’t offer him a full scholarship. When asked to explain why a school known for its great hurdlers would not offer a scholarship to the best high school hurdler ever, Nehemiah stated that “they didn’t think I would develop. They thought that because I had already done so much in high school, I had already reached my peak. They didn’t offer me a scholarship and that kind of hurt my feelings. It’s still a sore spot with me.” A final factor that made UMD a logical choice for Renaldo was they had an excellent track program, “one of the best on the east coast, outside of Villanova.” At the time, although Maryland was known more for its field events athletes, the track program had won over twenty consecutive ACC team titles, so Nehemiah decided he would go and help them add a few more.
One of Nehemiah’s shining moments as a collegian came in 1979, during his sophomore year at Maryland, at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. In that meet, Nehemiah led the Terps to four Championships of America, including running anchor legs on the shuttle hurdle relay, the 4×200, and 4×400, and he was named MVP of the meet. Ironically, he doesn’t look back on that weekend as fondly as those who witnessed his massive achievements. “What I remember mostly is that I had to chase a bunch of people down that day,” he said, although he concedes that the Penn Relays is “an event where stars are made. I was fortunate,” he continued, explaining how he was able to pull off the Herculean effort, “because I was a competitor, and I hated to lose, and I was representing Maryland.”
In regards to the 110-meter high hurdles, Nehemiah picked up right where he left off in high school, both in terms of his practice routine and his performance level. “I pretty much brought my training regimen to Maryland,” he said. “I would still do a lot of volume, and we would use races as speed work.” As a sophomore at UMD, he twice broke the world record in the 110’s with times of 13.16 and then 13.00. He recalls that “I ran 13.16 at the Bruce Jenner meet right after spring break. I didn’t wanna run the race because Dedy Cooper [of San Jose City College] was gonna be there, and I didn’t feel I was ready to run against him. But coach [Frank Costello] said I’d be okay, and I said, I don’t want to run the race. So I don’t know if it was pride, anger, or flying three thousand miles [to California], but I was motivated. I ran 13.16 for the world record, and that had to be off of volume because we hadn’t done any [speed work] yet. Then I broke the record again the following week at 13.00.”
Renaldo’s sophomore year at the University of Maryland ended up being his last one as an athlete there, although he continued his studies at the University and graduated in four years. His sponsor, the shoe company Puma, wanted to offer him financial payment, and he could not accept payment and still run collegiately. Having won the NCAA Nationals twice already, he decided to give up his scholarship in 1980, preferring to let Puma pay for his education, which, he admits, “was not a very popular decision with Coach [Costello].” Free of the constraints of the collegiate schedule, Nehemiah could give his legs a little bit of a break and gear his training more toward the summer meets on the European circuit. But just when it seemed that he was on a direct path toward an Olympic gold medal, U.S. President Jimmy Carter decided to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow as a means of protesting Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan. That decision crushed a lot of dreams, not just Renaldo’s, but specifically for Renaldo, it denied him of the opportunity to reveal his awe-inspiring skills on a world stage. In reference to the boycott, Nehemiah says that “it’s taken me a long time to come to terms with it. It happened at the worst time it could’ve possibly happened. I hadn’t even reached my prime yet. It served no purpose. Plus, I don’t understand why they didn’t boycott the winter games, but just the summer games. If you’re going to boycott, then boycott the entire movement, not just a particular season. [The boycott] is part of the reason – no, really, it’s the reason why I switched to professional football. I didn’t want to risk another four years of training for nothing. The forty-niners came along at the right time. They helped me sustain a professional career, and I had no long-term track goals. Track was an amateur sport.”
For those of you who don’t know, Nehemiah joined the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers in 1982 as a wide receiver, and was a member of their 1984 Super Bowl team. Although the Super Bowl ring did not bring him the satisfaction that an Olympic gold medal would have brought him, he does acknowledge that “in this country, a Super Bowl ring is the equivalent of a gold medal. It’s bittersweet,” he added, “but things happen for a reason. Football enhanced my aura; it gave me credibility in this country.” Nehemiah does feel that if not for the boycott and his decision to play professional football, the world record in the 110m high hurdles would definitely be in the 12.8 range. As far he’s concerned, it already is. “I ran 12.86, 12.82, but they didn’t give me credit for it,” he said, “because they didn’t think anybody could run that fast. I ran 12.82 in Jamaica, and 12.86 in the rain at the Sports Festival. But they said that the timing system malfunctioned, so they didn’t count it.” The fact that he was denied these times because of disbelieving officials does not upset Nehemiah very much, because he understands that fast times aren’t what really matter. “It just happens,” he remarked, “I was ahead of my time.”
One of the key aspects of Nehemiah’s hurdling career – both before and after his stint in professional football, but especially beforehand – was his rivalry with Greg Foster, the Illinois native who competed for UCLA when Nehemiah entered UMD. Throughout the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, the two of them were head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, setting new standards for hurdling excellence every time they stepped on the track. Nehemiah declares that the rivalry with Foster was not merely contrived by the media, but “was real with a capital ‘R’. He didn’t like me,” Renaldo went on, “because it was like David versus Goliath.” Foster stood 6’3”, compared to Nehemiah’s relatively smallish 6’0”. “There was also the East versus West thing. He had won an NCAA title, and then here I come. I was smaller, and more charismatic, which probably didn’t help matters. And I didn’t like him because I felt he didn’t respect my ability.” Nehemiah won most of the pre-football battles, but things were different after his return to the track in 1986. “When I came back from football,” Renaldo observed, “I wasn’t the same hurdler I had been before. [Greg] was my friend then because he was winning. But I had it in perspective. I understood that by leaving a sport for four years and gaining twenty-two pounds, changes are gonna happen.” Nehemiah pointed out that he had gone from 169 pounds before football to over 190 pounds during his days with the 49ers. “They said I couldn’t play under 185 after my rookie season,” he explained. “They thought I was too small.” Regarding Foster, Nehemiah made it a point to mention that “today we’re very good friends. We have a lot of mutual respect for each other.”
Nehemiah on the cover of Sports Illustrated after joining the 49ers.
Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, both Nehemiah and Foster ran their official personal bests in the same race, in August of 1981 at the Weltklasse meet in Zurich, Switzerland. Nehemiah broke his own world record with a 12.93, while Foster finished second in 13.03. Surprisingly, Nehemiah feels that it “wasn’t a good race.” He elaborated by saying, “the results were good, but technically, I made mistakes.” He had had an argument with Wilbur Ross, the hurdle guru and author of The Hurdler’s Bible, who was coaching Nehemiah at the time. Ross did not come to the race, and Renaldo was late arriving to the facility. “I didn’t arrive until the morning of the race,” he said. “I slept on the plane the night before. I had a lot of anger in me, and a lot of determination to prove I could win without Ross there. So with all this pent-up aggression, I was way out of control over the first hurdle. Then I floated over the second hurdle, and Greg caught me going into the third hurdle. From there, I just ran as fast as I could. It was just one of those things where I was just determined to win. I knew that if I could stay out in front, I could make him make a mistake. He’s six-foot-three, so if I’m getting crowded between hurdles, I know he’s getting crowded trying to chase me. For the first three hurdles I had too much adrenaline; I couldn’t control it, so I had to slow myself down. I knew that, technically, I was a better hurdler, faster between and over the hurdles. That’s probably what got me ahead of him. It’s a different race when you’re chasing someone than when you’re being chased.”
Although Nehemiah is able to find flaws in his world-record-setting race, it nevertheless remains one of the most magical moments in the history of Track & Field. The world record in the 110’s has only dropped .02 since 1981, which means, in essence, it hasn’t dropped at all. “I think the greatest compliment,” Renaldo said, “is that [modern hurdlers] have only run 12.91. The fact that only six people have broken thirteen and the record is only 12.91 means there’s really been no improvement at all. The technology is on their side. We didn’t have chiropractors, mondo surfaces. Mondo is so springy, it makes you run faster times. Even the hurdles are paper thin; these kids can run right through ‘em. They show no fear, and the art form has been lost. It’s all about speed and power now. Technically, they’re not running soundly; that’s why they can’t run fast.”
Being an athlete who grew up on strength training and achieved an enormous amount of success with it, Nehemiah feels that there is too much emphasis on speed and power in the training of Track & Field athletes these days. “Our entire sport is that way,” he said. “There’s a lot of hurdlers out there who look horrible [technically]. They run respectable times because of the equipment and the track surfaces; those things work for them. But once you ingrain bad technique, it’s hard to get out of it. Tiger Woods takes a whole year to change his swing, but nobody in track is gonna be willing to do that because there’s too much money to be lost.”
All of which brings us back to hurdling as an art form. The one point that rang most clearly in my conversation with Renaldo is that hurdling as an art form must be maintained by the athletes who participate in the event. To Nehemiah, approaching hurdling as an art form directly connects to being a person of integrity and high character, and of being a complete person. Running fast times, winning a lot of awards, and making a lot of money should not be the motivation to try the event or to continue to participate in the event. For Renaldo, it’s all about the feeling; that’s how he was taught. “If I wasn’t running to the rhythm,” he said, “it became a herky-jerky race. If I did feel the rhythm, the race was easy. Even in practice, I’d run for a feel; a lot of times I didn’t even need a stopwatch to tell I was running fast. Jean would ask me how fast I thought I had run a certain rep, and I’d say ‘I don’t know for sure, but I know it was the fastest one.’ And it was. He’d always remind me, however it felt, to remember the feeling, and try to duplicate the feeling.”
The key to finding that feeling of exhilaration and effortlessness in the hurdles lies in the willingness to live close to the edge. As Renaldo put it, you can’t force fast times. “A lot of people,” he said, “when they’re running, try to physically make it happen.” Therefore, they focus on getting stronger, faster, and basically overpowering the hurdles. But the key to success, according to Renaldo, lies in finding one’s own sense of rhythm. Fearlessness does not come in the form of being willing to knock hurdles over, but in knowing that you could crash at any second, but still being able to retain an attitude of “reckless abandon.” Nehemiah said that “you have to feel like you’re just on the edge. That’s why a lot of people don’t run under thirteen – because they’re fearful. To most hurdlers, running on the edge [of disaster] is a scary notion. To me, it’s the most exhilarating feeling in the world. One bad step and I’m on my face. And you very well could fall down because you get so far rotated that you run out of real estate and the next thing you know, there’s the hurdle. But great races can’t happen without embracing the fact that the worst-case scenario can happen.” Renaldo emphasized that the “jamming” workout, in which Coach Poquette would set the hurdles very close together and have Renaldo sprint over them at full speed, helped him to develop the fearlessness necessary to negotiate the barriers with complete trust in his ability to react and adjust as his speed increased through the course of a race. “That’s why I did the jamming,” he said, “because I had to react so quickly. That way, when it happened in a race, I wouldn’t shy away from it.”
From Nehemiah’s perspective, the art form of hurdling cannot be compromised, and his insights on this topic make it obvious as to how he was able to make hurdling look so easy. “The art form,” he stated, “is to become one with the hurdle, to make it your friend, and I embraced that process. I hated sprinting with nothing in front of me; put me over a hurdle and I was at home. I loved the feeling of going over a hurdle – how beautiful it felt. To me, the art form was what I call the ‘wow’ factor – when people are saying to each other, ‘How in the world does he run like that?’ I have pictures of me going over a hurdle and there’s no strain on my face; you wouldn’t even know I was in a race. Even after the 12.93, people were asking me, ‘How are you running so fast without any effort?’ I was taught [by Coach Poquette] not to fight the hurdle. You’re a dancer, don’t strain, don’t force it, be one with the hurdle, let it happen, relax while running fast. I liked the way it felt; it was easy, it was smooth, effortless.”
Nehemiah at a meet on the European Circuit
Nehemiah’s point is one worth discussing in some detail. Athletic greatness, if you think about it, always has the appearance being effortless, and that is not by accident. Great athletes understand that forcing the issue only inhibits them from creating the masterpieces that lie within them. If you’ve ever seen Carl Lewis run the 100 meter dash, or Edwin Moses in the intermediate hurdles, you’ll remember that they looked so relaxed when they ran. Lewis was even accused by some of not giving a genuine effort in some races. I remember people marveling at his speed, but also commenting, “Imagine how fast he could run if he really tried.” I also remember watching Edwin Moses run the 400m hurdles at the Jumbo Elliot Invitational at Villanova University back in 1983. He literally looked like he was just bouncing around the track at drill speed, but he ran something like a 48.3 that day. With the emphasis on speed and power these days, we still see amazing performances, but not with the same effortlessness and ease of motion. At the very least, it’s something to think about.
In terms of hurdling technique, the fluidity with which Nehemiah ran can be summed up with one word – a word that Coach Poquette must have created, as it doesn’t even exist in the dictionary – and that word is “unitization.” A definition of the term would be something along the lines of synthesis or synchronization. The goal was to make the hurdling motion one continuous motion, with no pause or break at the top of the hurdle. In essence, Poquette wanted Nehemiah to “unitize” his lead leg with his trail leg. I would venture to say that the word “unitize,” as opposed to “unify,” implies more a sense of uniterrupted motion, as opposed to a sense of culmination. Nehemiah worked extremely hard on perfecting this motion of stepping over hurdles instead of jumping over them. Because I forgot to ask him about this concept during our interview, I emailed him about it afterward, and here’s his response, in full:
“Basically, Jean taught me to work both legs as a single unit. From the moment my trail leg left the ground, it would continue its motion with the lead leg. He used to tell me to try and catch my lead leg with my trail leg. He taught me that there weren’t two motions; a lead leg and a trail. It was one continuous movement. So many hurdlers have a delay in the motion between the lead and trail leg. That causes separation and also, while the lead leg waits on the trail leg, your body is dropping down closer to the hurdle, and will cause the trail leg not to have enough room for clearance. Also, separation between the legs causes the trail leg shoulder to open more, causing more delay in the quickness of the trail leg. The body basically stalls while waiting. And this adds to time between the hurdles. His analogy was simple: when we run without hurdles, one leg doesn’t wait for the other leg. It’s automatic. And hurdling should be kept as close to running as possible. The only difference was that the lead leg motion was longer due to the flight clearance over the hurdle. But the basic motion was to be as rhythmic as running. In the end, flexibility and abdominal/groin strength were key to unitizing the legs.”
Understanding the concept of unitization intellectually is one thing, but Nehemiah would argue, and I’m sure Poquette would too, that, through repeated practice of the mechanics of hurdling, you will come to gradually learn to feel for this unitization, and that’s when you know you’re really hurdling. In regards to the back-and-forths, for example, Poquette stressed the following point: “The back-and-forths should be a totally supervised activity. It is not something that the athlete should go out and do alone. The coach is constantly evaluating the mechanics of the hurdling technique and providing instant feedback to the runner. It is not just a matter of quantity, but also quality. If an improper mechanic is coming into play and there is no coach to pick up on it, then the bad mechanic is going to become ingrained. Never practice mistakes.”
One thing that really stood out to me while listening to Renaldo talk about his hurdling career and hurdling philosophy is how much the closeness of his relationship with his coach mattered to him, and how it helped him, time and time again, to not only make the impossible possible, but to make it commonplace. The credit, according to Renaldo, goes to the coach. “Jean,” he said, “was probably one of the first coaches who actually welcomed feedback. That’s because he understood he wasn’t the one who was hurdling; I was. He’d allow me to have my input. We were in it together. I owe him for creating whatever success I accomplished as a hurdler. He gave me a hundred percent of himself, and I tried to give it back.” Now, Nehemiah says, because track is a professional sport and there is so much pressure to run fast times to keep the sponsors happy, track athletes don’t develop close relationships with their coaches, and they therefore don’t become truly educated about their events. In talking about his world record race, and how he felt he got out too fast, Renaldo feels that too many of today’s hurdlers put too much emphasis on the start of the race instead of trying to understand the nuances of the entire race. Again, they’re trying to force fast times instead of feeling for their rhythm and trusting their body’s ability to react instinctively. “You’ll hear a lot of guys say, ‘I got out great, but I was slow between the first and second hurdles,” Nehemiah commented. “That’s because they get out too fast. You don’t have to be the first hurdler out of the blocks. If you get out too fast, you have to catch up to your speed. The key is, you have to be able to transfer the speed. Hurdlers of today are not true students of the game because they don’t understand all that. The student has to be able to articulate what he is feeling, and the teacher helps him to internalize the feeling.”
A young Renaldo on the cover of Track & Field News
When asked to name a hurdler of today who he feels is a student of the game, Renaldo immediately mentioned Allen Johnson, whose career he managed (as his financial advisor, and then as his agent) for seven years. “[Hurdling] is not just about speed,” Nehemiah said, “you have to know how to hurdle. Allen Johnson is probably the most efficient hurdler, pound for pound, for the amount of energy he exerts.” In other words, Johnson is technically efficient, and he doesn’t waste a lot of energy trying to power through hurdles. “I’ve talked to Allen,” Renaldo said, “and he concurs that rhythm is what it’s all about.” Still, Nehemiah does have problems with Johnson’s tendency – which has become the norm for hurdlers of today – to hit a lot of hurdles. Like Coach Poquette, Renaldo places a high value on running clean races. He blames the trend toward less artistic races on the evolution of the equipment itself. “When I ran,” he said, “when you hit the hurdles, the hurdles hit you back.” Indeed, those old hurdles with the heavy wooden crossbars were quite daunting. You knew if you hit too many of those in the course of a workout or a race, you’d be hurting for days. Today’s hurdles, lighter in weight, with the soft aluminum crossbars, are much more hurdler-friendly, thereby promoting less efficiency of technique. Renaldo noted that since he retired, the 110’s “is no longer a marquee event because fans see guys hitting all those hurdles, so they naturally wonder, ‘Do you get penalized for that?’ The honest-effort rule, it seems, no longer applies. You can barrel through hurdles without fear of being disqualified. When I ran, it was an art form; people were saying, ‘Wow, it’s like poetry in motion.’ So, over the years, with all the speed and power in place of technique, fans aren’t as involved. Ugly races hurt fan participation, and it takes away from the natural art form of the discipline. [Hurdling] is not just about time, it’s about the craft.”
Part of the reason that Nehemiah has little patience for athletes who aren’t students of the game is because he was such a diligent student himself. It goes back to a point made much earlier in this profile – a lack of education indicates a lack of desire to improve. Nehemiah credits 1972 Olympic gold medallist Rodney Milburn as being the athlete who inspired him to become a hurdler, and a study of Milburn’s style is where Nehemiah’s hurdle education began. “I remember he ran a thirteen-flat hand-timed, which was converted to 13.24, and people were wondering if it was possible to break thirteen automatic, and I was determined to be the first. He was a great technician. I had a double-arm [motion] like he did when I first started. He was graceful, powerful, quick; I wanted to be just like him.” If you’ve seen any pictures of Nehemiah from his UMD days, you’ll notice a slight part in the middle of his haircut, which was a style he borrowed from Milburn, who sported a huge part in the middle of his large afro during the days of his competitive glory. Renaldo admits that Milburn “beat me in our first race. I was in awe of running against my idol. It ended up being a slow race – a 13.5 or something, so I made sure that never happened again. But yeah, he’s the single reason I got into the event. It was so cool to watch him take off. . . . He was a quiet guy; I liked that about him too.” In addition to Milburn, Nehemiah watched film of hurdlers all over the world. “Guy Drut, Lance Babb, Martin Lauer. I would watch them and study them and try to take a little bit of something from everyone of them.” Even now, as an agent, Renaldo has “a low tolerance for complacency. It can be very frustrating to see guys content with making the finals based on their talent as opposed to putting in the hard work and really reaping the benefits.” That attitude is a big part of the reason why he and Coach Poquette clicked so well. As he said himself, “One of my strengths when I was running was that I never wanted to point the finger. I never blamed Jean for anything. If I didn’t get the results, it was my fault. Jean sacrificed a lot with his own immediate family, so I had to reciprocate.”
Nehemiah says that he didn’t really have a pre-race ritual, even when it came to major competitions. “My pre-race dreams,” he said, “were probably as close to ritual as I got. The night before, I’d go to sleep and dream about my race, and I’d always be winning the race. When I came back from the forty-niners, I’d often have to wake myself up because I didn’t know if I was winning or losing.” On the day of the race, Nehemiah made it a point to focus solely on himself while warming up. “I never watched other hurdlers in warm-ups,” he said. “A lot of guys look very fast and quick in warm-ups, and I didn’t want to watch them and feel added pressure. I’d smile at everybody, shake their hands and wish them well. I meant it, but it was also a way to get into their heads. Plus, it relaxed me.” He always felt so prepared on the day of a race that the need for a ritual never came into play. “Jean taught me to be the most consistent hurdler out there, and that’s what all the volume was for. I was running 13.2 on a bad day. He never wanted me to come into a race not knowing what I was doing. All I had to do was tell myself to get out fast, put pressure on the other guys, and I knew they couldn’t catch me.”
When it comes to the state of modern-day Track & Field, Nehemiah feels that the emphasis on chasing after world records has hurt the spirit of competition in the sport, and even compromised the integrity of the sport. Athletes, motivated by the lure of the big dollars that come with breaking world records, make rash, un-wise decisions. The problem of performance-enhancing drugs, Nehemiah says, “has been a big issue for a long time, mainly because of marketing issues. The sport needed [world] records to make it a credible product for the sponsors. Unfortunately, a lot of records were out of reach. There aren’t any supermen or superwomen out there who can catch some of these records. We have some events that will never be the same again. It’s a shame that the federations don’t promote competition. I’m an advocate for taking out records and just rewarding places. Chasing after world records promotes cheating. Then you get the old, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ mentality. That’s what happens.”
For Nehemiah, the artistry of the sport and the integrity of the sport go hand-in-hand; they are inseparable entities. If you are seeking to further develop your mastery of the art form, that will reflect in how you compete, and in how you approach your event. If your focus is on making money, then you are compromising the integrity of the sport even if you don’t go so far as cheating; your ego-driven ambitions alone compromise the integrity of the sport. During his own competitive days, Nehemiah was “very quiet and aloof off the track. I didn’t have a need for people to tell me how good I was. I liked having my sanctuary. Sure, I liked being recognized, but I didn’t think [the fame] was that big of a deal. It was more important to me that I be true to myself, and not let my family and friends feel that they were any less important than me.”
When it comes to the work he does with the athletes he represents, he prefers not to bring up his own past glory very much at all, except perhaps as a reference point. As far as Renaldo is concerned, “you can go into the archives and read what I did; I don’t need to bring it up.” Still, he does appreciate it when athletes such as 2004 100-meter gold medallist Justin Gatlin acknowledge that he helped pave the way for athletes such as himself to make a living in the sport. What brings Renaldo the most gratification, however, is seeing athletes develop a strong moral character and an understanding that their athletic lives are only part of their lives. “I take great pleasure,” he said, “when I see the athletes I work with being true sportsmen and women and understanding what this game is really about. That’s when I feel like I’m making a difference. They get it finally.”
The notion that integrity matters more than fame and money is quite a simple one, but not a very popular one in these days of greed and consumption in the world of sports. For Renaldo Nehemiah, however, personal integrity is the foundation upon which he has built his life. As a hurdler, he was more than just an athlete; he was an artist in search of Truth, in search of total unitization of mind, body, and spirit. Did he find it? The fact that he no longer holds the official world record in the 110-meter high hurdles might lead us to believe that maybe he did not. But if you think about it a little more deeply, you’ll realize that records come and go, and that the fact that he now dedicates his life to making a difference in the lives of others serves as evidence that he is, indeed, the Master of the Art Form.
© 2005 Steve McGill