May 28, 2010

By Chuck Murr
Special to NCAA.com

BEREA, Ohio -- Harrison Dillard recalled gold-medal memories as he watched athletes one-quarter his age compete Friday at the NCAA Division III Men's and Women's Outdoor Track and Field Championships at his alma mater, Baldwin-Wallace College.

The 86-year-old Dillard, a two-time Olympic champion in both 1948 and '52, particularly enjoyed the sprint and hurdles events. He watched as Eric Woodruff of Moravian College set a meet record of 20.85 seconds in qualifying for the 200 meters, breaking a mark that had stood for 34 years.

Later, Obinna Nwanna of cross-town Case Western Reserve achieved personal bests in six of 10 events to claim the decathlon. Nwanna, a medical student who entered college as a high jumper, became a champion in only his third year of decathlon competition.

After two days, North Central (Ill.) College holds a commanding 41-17 lead in the team standings over Wisconsin-La Crosse. Rowan has 14, followed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology with 13. Thirteen final events are scheduled for Saturday.

"It is very enjoyable to watch this event at my old school," said Dillard, who enrolled in the college southwest of Cleveland in 1941. "It's very special. It is the same venue, but now there's a stadium here where we used to run in a field."

Dillard recalled how it changed his life when he met Jesse Owens shortly after the Cleveland native won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

"There was a parade, and a bunch of us kids went to watch," Dillard said. "Jesse was riding in an open-top convertible, which stopped in front of us. He winked and said hello. I ran home and almost broke the screen door bursting into the house: 'Mama, I just saw Jesse Owens, and he talked to me. I'm going to be just like him.'"

A dozen years later, Owens was in the crowd when Dillard won the 100 meters and was part of the victorious U.S. 4-x-100 relay champions in London.

"I knew he was there, and I wanted to make him proud," Dillard said.

"It wasn't pressure to try and match him. It spurred me on."

Dillard repeated as a relay gold medalist in 1952 in Helsinki and added gold in the 110 hurdles.

"I started out in hurdles because I wasn't fast enough to make my junior high team in the 100," Dillard recalled. "Hurdles was a great fit for me. I kept working and got fast enough to run the 100 too.

"That's the great beauty of track and field. You compete against your opponents but have to challenge yourself."

That's the exact philosophy Brandon Fugett followed to repeat as shot put champion with a big toss on his final throw.

"I knew it was the last throw of my career, and I put everything I had into it," said the senior from Salisbury (Md.) University after winning with a final throw of 58 feet 9 1/4 inches. "There's always pressure to compete, but winning for a second time is tough. I didn't have the best indoor meet, so I used that to fire me up."

Fugett's coach, Jim Jones, yelled, "Yes, that's it!" as the throw was in the air.

"I just knew when I saw his release that he had nailed it," Jones said. "I've seen him enough to know that when his setup and release are like that, it's going to be good. He's a quiet young man, a gentle giant, but he's a champion."

Fugett was in third place when he stepped up for his final throw.

"I thought about all those days I practiced in the rain, the cold, the snow," he said. "I thought about all the training I've gone through. I guess it all paid off.

"My mom flew in from California to watch, and I couldn't disappoint her. I just couldn't lose and then drive back eight hours to school thinking that I didn't give it my best."

Nwanna grew up in nearby Toledo and had numerous friends and family members cheering for him.

"That helped a lot," he said. "I knew going to the final event (1,500 meters) that I needed to run a personal best. It's not my best event."

As Nwanna gamely approached the finish line more than a half-minute behind winner James Wohrley of Cornell College, the runner in front of him slowed up, turned and cheered Nwanna on. Alex Stake of Augustana (Ill.) placed 14th overall in the decathlon but knew Nwanna needed to finish strong.

Nwanna crossed the finish line and gasped for breath.

"I think I held on, but I'm not sure," he said.

Nwanna's score of 7,056 points held off defending champion Josh Lovell of Linfield College by 34 points to become Case Western Reserve's first national decathlon winner since Kevin Luthy in 1990.

Earlier, defending champion Stephen Headley of Springfield (Mass.) College ran the top time of the season in the 100 meters at 10.36 seconds in qualifiers for Saturday's finals.