It’s simple physics. The fastest you run, the harder it is to turn suddenly. And when you’re built like a freight train, as Bob Hayes was, and the track began curving just at the end of the 100-meter finish line, you either have to turn that curve at top speed, or head straight into a brick wall.
Hayes wasn’t at Rutgers to study physics. It was June 27, 1964, and he was competing in the national championships of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in New Jersey. Hayes was already anointed Olympic champion in the 100 meters by prognosticators, months before the start of the Games. But he still had to qualify for the US track team heading to Tokyo.
At that time, there were two trials to be held – one in Randall’s Island, NY in July, and the other a couple of months later in Los Angeles, California. But first, Hayes had to negotiate a curve in New Jersey. At the 60-meter mark, Hayes felt a twinge in his left thigh, so he eased up. He still won the race, but he was bearing hard on the brick wall, so he stumbled around the curve, slowing down to a limp.
Hayes headed right to the training room, got prone face down on the table, and understood fairly quickly, as his trainer picked and probed his leg, that something was wrong. It was indeed a pulled hamstring.
Only 75 days from the Olympics, his hammie had let him down. But Hayes thought that he did not have 75 days to heal. He had only a little over a week to heal before the first Olympic track trials were held during the July 4th weekend. And heal, he did not. At the end of the two-day track trials at Randall’s Island, Hayes could only watch and grimace in pain, both physical and psychological. The flash from Florida had to wait, wondering whether the powers that be would grant him an exception so that he can participate in the second trial in Los Angeles.
The US men’s track coach, Bob Giegengack, strolled alongside Hayes, making small talk, before saying, “We voted to advance you to Los Angeles, Bob.”
So Bullet Bob, dodged a bullet, as it were.
Hayes’ hamstring improved, but he only dared to train with light jogging. And when mid-September and his date with destiny at the final track and field trials rolled around, Hayes was so nervous he could not sleep. He had gained ten pounds and he had yet to go full speed in the recuperation period since the AAU national championships.
And when he was on his way to the Coliseum, the stadium where the Olympic trials were being held, Hayes had a scare. He got in an elevator joined by discus throwers Al Oerter and Jay Silvester, as well as shot put thrower, Dallas Long. As Hayes explained in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, the three of them alone weighed nearly half a ton. The elevator refused to work, and so Hayes, in a hurry to get to his sprinting trials, was waiting nervously for nearly 10 minutes. The doors were eventually clawed open, so that Hayes could pull himself up three feet to get out, and then jogged to the stadium, negotiating highway traffic to the stadium and the trials in time.
Hayes made it in time. When he lined up to race, he saw sprinters whom he had beaten multiple times, but he did not know if his hamstring could take full speed. No time like the present.
When the gun went off, Hayes started somewhat tentatively. But nearly halfway through the race, the locomotive gathered steam. Once Hayes had the lead, it continued to grow. The Bullet blazed to victory in 10.1 seconds.
Thanks to the coaches, Hayes was saved in Randall’s Island to live another day. And Hayes paid back his coaches’ faith in him by drubbing the field. Hayes was headed for Tokyo.
Watch Hayes victory in Los Angeles at the 11 second mark of this video.