Renaldo Nehemiah, 19 years old and on the verge of becoming perhaps the greatest hurdler who ever lived, seemed an unlikely choice to set a world record last night.
"I'm not where I want to be. I'm too sloppy. My trail leg lags behind me. I'm only operating at 75 percent capability right now," said Nehemiah. "I didn't even jump one hurdle in practice this week."
"No way... no way that Skeets should have broken his own world record tonight," said Nehemiah's University of Maryland track coach, Frank Costello, shaking his head in disbelief.
"We've done literally nothing compared to this time last year. Renaldo hurt his ankle and layed off three months and didn't even run until late November. He never did a step of speed work until Christmas.
"Frankly," said Costello, "I hardly believe it."
The track world, however, has no trouble believing anything that Nehemiah does.His 7.02-second clocking in the 60-yard high hurdles at the National Invitational indoor track meet at Cole Field House shattered his world indoor record of 7.07.
If the rest of the world only expected the brilliant Nehemiah to be routinely excellent, then Nehemiah's roommate, Bob Calhoun, knew better.
"He told me this afternoon, 'The world record is gone. I'm gonna break it tonight,'" said Calhoun. "Renaldo said, 'I'm going out and get it... maybe 6.99. I can't explain it, I just feel like running.'"
Little about Nehemiah can be explained. He is one of those prodigies who in the space of two or three years surpasses all the previous greats in his event and suddenly becomes the standard against which others are measured.
As a Terp freshman last year, Nehemiah was the No. 1-ranked hurdler in the world, posting eight of the year's best times in the 110 highs. Yet the youngster considered the year a mild disappointment because he lost a couple of races -- a new experience -- including the NCAA outdoor championship to Greg Foster.
Now, Costello says, "Renaldo is ready to blast off... what you saw tonight is an unexpected quantum jump for him from 7.07 to 7.02. He may do 6.95 before the indoor season is over.
"I have no doubt that he will break the world outdoor record (13.23) several times this summer. Oh yeah... sure... no doubt whatsoever. His sheer speed and strength are awesome. His build is perfect -- 6-1 1/2, 170 pounds. He's three times stronger than he looks... he just benchpressed 290 pounds this week.
"When I look at his workouts, they're incomprehensible.I don't know what to measure them against. No hurdler has ever had his raw speed (9.3 over 100 yards, 10.18 in the 100 meters), and none has had his strength.
"All his weight training for the last year is why this record came from out of the blue. That's the only explanation. Skeets even got a poor start tonight. But he just exploded. Who knows what he can do."
Typically, the quiet, polite Nehemiah was self-critical seconds after the announcement of his record.
"I want to live up to my No. 1 ranking," he said. "There have been so many high school flashes in this sport. I feel a lot of pressure not to be among that number," he said.
"Last year, I just ran on natural ability. Now I have to master technique and relaxation. I still haven't run that perfect race or anything real close to it.
"In this meet last year, I was nervous... my first big college meet. The track was actually too fast for me. I couldn't handle it; my steps were off... I was smashing into every hurdle."
Last night, Nehemiah was fluid, blowing out a fast field by nearly six yards, an incredible margin of victory at only 60 yards.
"You can count the months until Skeets becomes indisputably the fastest hurdler who ever walked the earth," said Costello. "I can say these things because Skeets is just a joy to work with.
"He's not cocky, just supremely confident. It's the guys who are semigreat who have to put on the big front... guys like me," grinned Costello, who was a 7-foot high jumper.
"I'm eating this up," said Costello. "It's something of a vindication for me."
The Maryland coach had been criticized last year, even by Nehemiah, for using the hundler in too many other events -- sometimes four in one meet -- to help Maryland's overall team performance.
"I know I'm handling pure gold," said Costello. "I'm 35 and I could coach another 25 years and never handle anyone who's going to be absolutely the best in history at his event.
"But I think the weight training, which I'm a freak on, and the variety of events has helped Skeets develop his strength and not become stagnant and burned out."
No one thinks Nehemiah is likely to burn out before the 1980 Olympics. Actually, it was only four years ago that Nehemiah began to blossom.
"I used to beat him in everything," said Terp senior Calhoun. "We're still close in a lot of things, but he keeps sneaking up on me or passing me. He out bench-pressed me for the first time in his life this week.
"If he puts his mind to it, he could do anything... even the decathlon," said Calhoun, a world class long jumper.
"But he was specially blessed in the hurdles. It's like the event was drafted on a blueprint for everything he does best. His strides are the perfect length so that he can sprint the hurdles, rather than choking his stride with conscious steps."
In addition, Nehemiah is a fanatical student of film dissecting the form of Rod Milburn -- the man who is both his hero and the legend whom he plans to erase as the greatest hurdler of them all.
"Skeets is meticulous," says Calhoun. "He may be the only person who's almost as neat as me. He can't stand flaws or anything being out of place."