For the first time since 1970, I will be returning this week to Drake University to cover the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. In 1970, as a young photographer, I enjoyed my time in Des Moines and at the Championships.
Heavy rains could not deter me from photographing as many events as possible. Most photographers sought cover from the storms during what seemed to them to be the meaningless final event of the men’s decathlon, the 1,50om run. I stayed out in the elements. The rains had eased. Leaving my Nikon F and a 300mm f4.5 lens covered, I kneeled along the home stretch with a Nikkormat camera and a simple 105mm lens to make the picture you see above.
New Hampshire’s Gary King was leading down the final straight. King did not realize that closing fast with every giant stride was Drake’s Rick Wanamaker. You can see the reaction as Wanamaker flew by the shocked and weary King. Since my Nikkormat was not motorized, I made one image, one that proved to be the right moment.
The next spring that photograph was named the best sports picture of the year by the National Press Photographer’s Association. In the photographic world of the time, this was as about as big as it got. That same year, the late Brian Lanker won the first of his National Photographer of the Year awards for the overall excellence of his work in Topeka.
News of Lanker’s award arrived to the newspaper ahead of the other individual category awards. There was great celebration in the office over Lanker’s success. Weeks later, Rich Clarkson summoned me to the front office where my boss proceeded to shred me and my work. Finally, as I laid against what seemed to be the boxing ring’s ropes, Clarkson tossed me a sheet with my name circled and offered a curt, “Well done.”
Staggering back to the print room, George Olson greeted me after watching my beat down with questions as to what happened. I handed Olson the sheet of paper and quietly said, “I just won picture of the year.” Olson, a former National Collegiate Photographer of the Year, immediately knew this was all designed by Clarkson to painfully humble me. Fortunately, that did not stop Olson from lifting me up and pounding me on the back in joy over the award, which brought me back to life.
Later that spring at the awards ceremony, I walked across the stage as the youngest photographer ever to win such an award. Now 20, I still looked like a high schooler. I remember most the people in the audience saying, “That’s just a kid. Look how young he is.” Oh, that and Clarkson’s smile, the biggest I have ever seen him give me.
Now, many years later, I look back at this picture with great pride. Yet, I can think of so many more pictures shot better, that had more impact on more people and were more significant. Yet, none won an award of this magnitude. Jokingly I hope, many have said I peaked early, and my long career has been nothing more than a long slide down from the heights. That is a scary thought.
Recently I corresponded with both Wanamaker and King and sent them a digital image of the photograph. Wanamaker still lives in Des Moines where he starred as basketball player as well as a decathlete. Wanamaker had already compiled enough points from his efforts in the first nine events to wrap up the decathlon title before the 1,500. All he needed was to finish, but he still gave everything he had in front of the home crowd.
King reminded me that 1970 was the first year the NCAA contested the decathlon in the Championship and how proud he remains to have been part of the historic event. Both men recalled the strong storm passing through ahead of the final race. King wrote, “yes, that was quite a rain storm, and apparently a lot of your colleagues/photographers were slightly intimidated by the ‘weather’ – but not you.”
That is what I will remember as I return for the Championships this week. Get out there and take pictures. You never know when a perfect storm might pass through again. There still are times it is important to be young, dumb and blessed.