There was the slightest hint of anger and just a touch of laughter in the voice of Maryland's track coach, Frank Costello.

"The people of Washington have to realize," Costello said, "that the greatest track man in the world is sitting right here."

That "man" is the child-faced Renaldo Nehemiah, called Skeets by his family ("so fast, you have to be a skeet shooter to get a glimpse of me"); called Sa Majeste (His Majesty) by French headline writers.

By whatever name or description, Nehemiah, just 19, is the world's top-ranked hurdler, and by the time the 1980 Olympics have come and gone, those who know say Nehemiah may be the next great peddler of Wheaties and razors.

Between Jan. 13 and Jan. 21, Nehemiah trimmed his indoor world record for the 60-yard high hurdles from 7.07 seconds to 7.02 to 6.95.

Back in College Park, people were asking Nehemiah's roommate, Bobby Calhoun, "Your man gone bionic on us?"

"I used to be shocked," Costello said. "No more. With the possible exception of some sprinters, no one in indoor track has done what he's done," Costello said of the record demolition binge. "I'm sure he'll break it again.

"How fast can he go? I'm convinced he can't do it in one second."

Nehemiah has the build, the spped, the size and the strength to blend into a champion, but what may be of more enduring value is his presence.Even now, as you speak to Nehemiah and look into his youthful face, you are startled by the maturity of his comments.

Those close to him cite this as his key to success.

"By the time I had my head that together," Costello said, "I was physically over the hill."

Typically, Nehemiah understands this.

"My biggest advantage is my age. I'm only 19, and people will be following my progress, hopefully, for a long time.

"I'm confident that all this isn't just for my satisfaction. I want to gain something from it. That's why it's important to me to go out and do things that have never been done.

"I want to put the record out of reach. I want the impression I make to be so great that it will open doors for me."

One of the ventures that grabs his interest is professional football. He already has consulted former Maryland player and present Houston fullback Tim Wilson, who told him not to bother with college football. He figures an Olympic gold medal will be good for admittance to most pro football tryout camps.

It's also easy to imagine Nehemiah on television. Bruce Jenner and Mark Spitz kept body and soul together doing this after Olympic stardom, and Nehemiah has gone to school on their exploits, both before and after they won their Olympic gold.

"They weren't happy just to win," Nehemiah said. "They wanted to go all the way. That's the way I feel about records. I want to do the impossible.

"Dwight Stones and Muhammad Ali are always telling people how great they are. What I do tells you who I am.

"I think I should be recognized. It helps the school, while the school is helping me. I've proven that I can get as much attention as the football players. I'm doing as much for Maryland as the whole football team."

This Nehemiah says in defense of track, and of his fame, not in braggadocio.

"He knows he's Renaldo Nehemiah. He knows he's a superstar and he doesn't have to tell anybody," Costello said. "He never brags. That's what's so cool about him. That's why I'm lucky. I could have a guy who's totally out of hand."

Nehemiah is totally in hand. After a freshman year of "wondering if I was another high school flash," Nehemiah has discovered his greatness to be for real and finds no need to advertise it. When he met his girlfriend, Kim Harmon, last Novermber, he never brought up track. She had no idea he was, as she says," "somebody important."

His biggest problem has been the jealousy of his peers and his struggle to be normal when he is exceptional. When an article in the school newspaper described Nehemiah as the only true winner at Maryland, the only athlete who hasn't choked, he was distressed at the stares he received.

"I'm singled out on the team all the time, and that makes me feel like a showboat," Nehemiah said. "I've molded myself not to be a hot dog, and I fell sorry about making people upset.

"Last year I had to go out of my way to make friends. My friends felt they couldn't come by my room any more, and that bothered me. I was sort of on my own. They put me on a pedestal and I didn't want to be there. It's the same with girls. I felt like a freak, and I'm supposed to be happy."

Nehemiah has learned to handle all this with some help from Costello, who said Nehemiah has so much trouble with unwanted females that his name has to be left off hotel ledgers.

"Young, old, they just walk up and ask," Nehemiah said without the hint of a smile. "The bad part is it's natural. They figure it's the least they could say to me. It turns me off very much."

Most athletes give in to the adulation to some degree, but this is only one way in which Nehemiah is different. Just as his sport measures success in hundredths of a second, Nehemiah disects his life, measuring each action with microscopic scrutiny.

Nehemiah squires his girlfriend quite steadily. He and Harmon go window-shopping and to movies, football and basketball games and Nehemiah is a familiar sight opening all doors for her or helping her with her coat.

"The guys mock me," Nehemiah said. "When they see Kim and me come into the dining hall, they'll start opening doors for each other and pulling out chairs for each other. It doesn't bother me. I'm glad that I have someone I like that much.

"The first girl I ever said hello to on this campus said to me, 'I bet you're like all the rest of the jocks around here,' I'm not interested in being a macho man. I see the way women are treated. I see guys strining them along, overlooking their feelings. I'm sensitive to women.

"There is no one guy on the team, except for maybe Bobby (Calhoun, his roommate) who thinks exactly the way I do or has the same morals. Once again, I'm not one of the bunch. I have my own identity."

Even Nehemiah's brother Dion teases him about his taste in soft music, his impeccable dress (notice the Pierre Cardin belt buckle), his oldfashioned etiquette and his spotless room. (If Calhoun doesn't have time to make his bed, Nehemiah makes it for him.)

"He calls me a square," Nehemiah said, obviously not bothered by it. "You'll never see me out with a bunch of guys. I'd rather go to a movie with Kim than go to a party and shake around."

Nehemiah would make the perfect media hero because he is, as Costello said, image-conscious. He cares how he looks.

"At a track, I feel everyone looking at me. They watch me take my sweat pants off. If I blew my nose, they'd watch that," Nehemiah said. "The running itself is scary, because I feel like I'm out there by myself and the whole world is looking at me."

That is, scary as in fun scary, a roller coaster ride or a horror movie. Nehemiah loves the spotlight, craves it.

"He's a performer," Costello said. "I don't care what people tell you -- you go into sports to beat people. He likes to read his name in the paper. He wants to be a little ahead of the world."

Nehemiah runs his best races against good competition, namely UCLA's Greg Foster, ranked No. 2. His 6.95 at Philadelphia Saturday was a dead heat with Foster, and even thought it set a record, Nehemiah called it "the worst experience of my life. I hate sharing records."

He told Calhoun he would beat Foster the next day. He did, setting his present record at Madison Square Garden.

"He owns the Garden," Costello said. "He's the ultimate competitor."

Costello sensed that it might turn out this way two years ago when he drove to Scotch Plains, N.J., to sign Nehemiah. Costello got out of the car, turned to his assistant coach, Dick Dull, and said, "I'm about to sign the greatest athlete ever to attend the University of Maryland."

Today he is more convinced.

Costello might be pardoned for his horn-blowing, since all America's track children sing the nobody-lovesme blues.

Football, baseball and basketball are the big brothers America always has loved best. Track doesn't have fans. It has a subculture. It has that tiny, hard-core group of crazies who carry stopwatches and speak in their own tongue of numbers and decimal points.

They rant and rave and spread copies of Track and Field magazine across the land, but they might as well shave their heads and sing on street corners, because the man on the street is having enough trouble keeping his zip code straight from his social security number.

A touchdown, a home run, a dunk can be comprehended, but a 7.07 could be an airplane or an area code in Northern California.

This is where they hope Nehemiah will come in, wearing Olympic gold.

Swimming suffered from identical drawbacks until Spitz splashed and swam into the brains of America on worldwide television in the 1972 Olympics. Knowledge of the "times" remained the sacred possession of the stopwatch punchers, but after Spitz, America suddenly was into the swim.

This is what Nehemiah is beginning to do for hurdling, the event he considers "the symbol of track." Not since the days of Willie Davenport and Rod Milburn has the event had such a hero, such a following.

Nehemiah was not always a track buff. He didn't really join the cult until his later years in high school. He was good enough as a high school quarterback to be offered a college scholarship at Alabama In his first karate lesson he broke a board on his first chop. And although he is only 6-foot-1, he dunked a basketball the first time he tried, in a pickup game with Calhoun.

"I'm convinced," said Calhoun, himself a fine long jumper, "that he can do anything."

Even at Busch Gardens amusement park, Nehemiah went to the booth where contestants throw wet baseballs at a target to dunk a clown into a tub of water and decided to play it to the hilt. In one standing, Nehemiah dished out six baths.

"I put my best into everything, even backgammon," Nehemiah said. "Some of the guys won't bowl with me."

So why would an athlete of such ability choose hurdling?

"Skeets wanted something different," said Calhoun, who grew up 10 houses away from him.

"Trach is more individual," Nehemiah said. "It's more one person doing something. It's more spotlighting. It's more me."

If a person has to go out for track, sprinting is usually the most attractive event.

"Sprinters come and go," Nehemiah said. "They're a dime a dozen. I see hurdling as all the events put together -- running, jumping, balance. It's the symbol of track."

What does it feel like to be the best in the world at something?

"Right now, it's frightening," Nehemiah said."I don't want it taken away. When 1980 (the Olympics) is over, that'll be the time to explode. Until it's over, I won't appreciate it.

"Being No. 1 means more to me than anything. It'll always be an inspiration to me. They don't know who the best football player is.

"I want to be a complete person. When I'm alone, I think to myself that the biggest highlight of my career is that I can keep my composure, that I've never had the urge to blab. My highlight is staying who I am."