Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah's usually pleasant disposition immediately turns sour when anyone mentions athletes from the West Coast.
"The athletes out there seem to think the only people who can run track are from the West Coast," said Nehemiah, an 18-year-old university of Maryland freshman who last week streaked to a world record in the 60 yard high hurdles at the Millrose Indoor games at Madison Square Garden. "In high school, I dominated the East Coast. So East Coast track can't be too bad."
If anyone thought there weren't any world-class athletes running around on the East Coast, Nehemiah began disspelling those thoughts midway in his junior year at Scotch Plains (N.J.) High School as he smashed meet, state and national records one after another in every hurdle event from the 60-yard highs to the 330 intermediates.
Even while chalking up more than 100 straight hurdle victories, Nehemiah didn't gain a long-overdue national reputation until he ran a 12.9 in the 120 highs at the Eastern State Championships in New York last year, thus becoming the first prep runner to eclipse 13.0 in that event. For his feat, he was selected High School Athlete of the Year.
That was a big thrill of Nehemiah, but he likes to recall the international prep meet in Illinois that which matched the top six performers in each event from all over the nation. Nebemiah won the 120 in 31.1 and the 330 intermediate in 35.8, setting meet records in the process.
"I won borth races pretty easily and there were quite a few West Coast hurdles entered," said the confident Nebemiah. "A lot of nonblievers were there just to see how fast I really was."
Nehemiah has run a 9.4 100 and a 20.9 220 and long-jumped a state record 24-foot-11 1/2 on what he considered a still-healing leg.
"When I was in ninth grade I was only 5-foot-4 and weighed maybe 110 pounds. I pulled a hamstring running hurdles," he said. "It tooke me nearly two years to get well. Even now I know my leg will get stronger."
Nehemiah narrowed his hundreds of college offers to Maryland and Southern Cal.
"A West Coast school and an East Coast school," said Nehemiah with a slight laugh. "I visited the USC campus first and wasn't impressed with the atmosphere. The attitude of the athletes out there was different. That's one reason I chose Maryland."
Terp Track coach Frank Costello "A guy like Skeets comes along once in a lifetime", Costello said. "I already had one excellent hurdler (Greg Robertson) and with Skeets I knew I had two of the finest hurdlers in the world".
In Nehemiah's first race as a collegian, he finished fourth behind Greg Foster, DeDe Cooper and Charles Foster in the Muhammad Ali meet in Long Beach, Calif.
It was a new experience - losing - I hadn't done that in a long time," Nehemiah said. "But it was good for me Helped me realize college is different from high school and I have to work hard."
In his next meet the 6-1, 162-pound Nehemiah disappointed the home fans at the CYO meet a Cole Field House when he finished third behind Washingtonian Larry Shipp and James Walker.
After those defeats, Nehemiah decided to "get his head together and concentrate." He whipped Shipp and Walker in the Philadelphia Classic before stepping in the blocks along with four of the finest hurdles it the world, including Robertson, at the Millrose Games.
The race was never close. Nehemiah burst out of the blocks and blazed to a 7.07 electronic clocking, breaking the world mark of 7.11 set in March of 1976 by Shipp at the NCAA indoor championships.
The world mark for hand timing is 6.8, which is shared by three hurdles. Hand-managed clocks produce faster times than electronic devices.
'I feel I have to be ranked among the top five in the world on the strength of that world record", said Nehemiah. "And as far as the Olympics, that's also one of my goals."