WYSOCKI’S JUMP FROM REDLANDS TO L.A. GAMES

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Clay Brooks raved about Ruth Kleinsasser.

So did Ted Runner.

Brooks, who spent years as the University of Redlands track & field coach, was a true professor of his sport.

Runner, whose presence on that campus as an athlete, coach and, ultimately, director of athletics, was fond of track. He’d competed. For years, he coached. It almost seemed like he kept a closer eye on that sport than he did anything else.

When Kleinsasser (eventually Ruth Wysocki) stepped onto the track at the Los Angeles Coliseum nine years after spending her freshman season at Redlands, the two men – Brooks and Runner – watched with great interest.

The Alhambra-born Kleinsasser, who ran at Azusa High School, was a prized performer at Redlands for one season.

What made Kleinsasser special was her true dedication to the sport. As a track star, she’s a lifer.

It started in age-group races in the late 1960s, starting an eventual period of about 30 years, until she became a Masters (over-40) runner in 1997.

As an Azusa High senior in 1973, she ran a 2:16 to win the CIF Southern Section 880-yard championship. She also sped around the track to win the 440 (57.3). That’s as tough of a double is in any championship meet.

Since there was no State meet held for girls that year – one would start in 1975, Kleinsasser never had a chance to prove her domination.

By the 1975 season, Kleinsasser was running at Redlands, primarily because internationally-renowned Bulldog coach Vince Reel had come out of retirement. Reel, in fact, met Kleinsasser halfway. He trained her in Claremont.

Ruth Wysocki
Former University of Redlands runner Ruth Wysocki, then known as Ruth Kleinsasser, beat Mary Decker Slaney, right, at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials in the women’s 1500-meter – one of the shocking upsets that year in track (Photo by runmoremiles.com).

A YEAR IN REDLANDS

Reel, who was married to Chinese star Chi Cheng, had international status, especially since he’d lured some top talent – Chinese sprint star Lee Shiu-Chia, middle distance runners Chee Swee Lee, plus Donna Fromme and some dandy runners like distance star Molly O’Neil, hurdler Pam Ashe, sprinters Gloria Kennedy, Lynn Jones and Denise Becton.

Throw Kleinsasser into that mix. If only she’d lasted four seasons.

Reel wrote about his own exploits. Part of his writings were about Ruth, including her season at Redlands.

Vince Reel
Vince Reel, shown her as a Long Beach City College athlete, where he was State champion in the 100 and 220, in the early 1930s. A two-time sprint champion at Occidental College in 1936, he was fourth in the NCAA 220 championships for Occidental College.He would become a huge connection in the track world as a coach –  Long Beach Wilson High School Track and Field Coach (1938-1957), moving on to Claremont College (1958-71), coming out of retirement to coach Redlands through 1979. He was also the Olympic track & field coach for India (1960) and China (1972). Reel was the founder of “Women’s Track and Field” magazine. (Photo credit: Long Beach City College).

Admittedly, Kleinsasser dropped out of Redlands. “I realize I had chosen the wrong school. Not that it isn’t a wonderful place; it was not just the right place for me.”

“That was before the NCAA for women,” Kleinsasser told Reel in the days when women’s sports were governed by the old AIAW. Truth is, in those days, Redlands’ men were part of the NAIA, not the NCAA.

In reality, Kleinsasser wasn’t even the fastest half-miler on her own team. That same season, Lee Chiu-Shia ran a 2:05.36 in the SPAA meet at track-rich Occidental College, just outside of Pasadena.

At the Bakersfield Invitational, Kleinsasser posted her 2:07.6.

A more familiar name may well be Ruth Wysocki. That came after she married top national distance runner Tom Wysocki.

What made her a Redlands Connection was the year she spent at the University of Redlands. In 1975, she ran fast – the 2:07.6 in the 800, plus a 56.80 in the 400 at the Long Beach Invitational – but she headed back to Citrus College.

More domination. At Citrus, running as Ruth Caldwell, she scored victories in the State cross country championship for both 1977 and 1978.

During the spring track seasons in 1978 and 1979, she was State champion in both the 800 and 1500.

There was a pattern here. Like many international competitors, she was laying the groundwork for the Olympics. In fact, she ran a 2:03, qualifying for the 1976 U.S. Olympic Trials – still under Reel’s watch. She was 19. Ruth took eighth in the Trials.

She was on-again, off-again training – seriously, pondering, planning. She’d gone from Ruth Kleinsasser to Ruth Caldwell and, finally, to Ruth Wysocki.

WYSOCKI SLAYED SLANEY

If there was a top-flight moment for the ex-Redlands runner, it might be these:

Wysocki upset highly-touted USA star Mary Decker to win the 800 at the 1978 U.S. Championships in 2:01.99. Wysocki scored another upset victory against Decker (eventually Slaney) at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, this time in the 1500-meter.

It was huge at that time. Still is … huge, that is.

Wysocki outsprinted Slaney to win the Trials in 4:00.18 – her lifetime best.

It was Tom Wysocki, training for the Trials, that had convinced his wife to train for the Olympics.

Brooks, who was Reel’s successor at Redlands and Runner, who were both coming to the end of their Redlands careers, watched with curiosity as the one-year Lady Bulldog star made her way into the L.A. Games.

She finished sixth in the 800 and eighth in 1500.

To veteran observers like Brooks and Runner, it was a Redlands victory. One of their own had reached the pinnacle of the sport.

Who cared if the Eastern Bloc nations had boycotted the 1984 Games?

Remember, these were the games of Carl Lewis’ 4-event gold medal.

The women included sprinters Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Evelyn Ashford, plus Flo Jo – Florence Griffith Joyner – plus onetime San Gorgonio High School star Sherri Howard (4 x 400 gold medalist), Jackie Joyner-Kersee, along with marathon champion Joan Benoit.

More men: Britain’s Daley Thompson scored his second straight decathlon title.

Hurdler Edwin Moses. Triple jumper Al Joyner.

ANOTHER REDLANDS CONNECTION

Adding to the flavor of Redlands connections:

One year before the L.A. Games, Redlands held its annual invitational on its cinder track. Two interested participants were Air Force Academy (Colo.) and Azusa Pacific University, among over a dozen other team entries.

In the meet-concluding 4 x 400 relay, Air Force’s Alonzo Babers and Azusa’s Innocent Egbunike ran neck-and-neck on the anchor lap. They might have even brushed against one another halfway on the final lap.

Egbunike could be seen turning his head in Babers’ direction. Neither runner broke stride.

At the finish, Egbunike prevailed.

One year later, the two met in the open 400-meter – Egbunike for his native Nigeria and Babers for the U.S.

Babers won the gold in 44.27 seconds. Egbunike took last in 45.35.

The two would meet again in the 4 x 400 relay.

Sunder Nix, Ray Armstead, Babers and Antonio McKay won the gold, prevailing in 2:57.91. Nigeria, anchored by Egbunike, ran third in 2:59.32.

As for Wysocki, that Redlands Connection kept going for years.

Over a decade later, in 1995, Wysocki ran seventh in the 1500 at the Championships in Athletics in Gothenburg.

In 1997, Wysocki set several Masters records at distances from 800 to 5000 on the track, plus 5K and 8K road races.

She was surrounded by distance runners.

Her dad, Willis Kleinsasser, was a successful Masters athlete.

Alan Kleinsasser, her brother, ran a 1:50.5 over 800 meters and a 3:52.2 clocking in the 1500 – both school records at Caltech in Pasadena.

Then, of course, her husband, Tom produced 13:35.33 in the 5000-meter and 28:19.56 in the 10,000.

WYSOCKI AT THE L.A. OLYMPICS

It wasn’t going to be easy. Despite the absence of the Eastern Bloc nations, that boycott led by the old Soviet Union, there was still plenty of international talent.

On Aug. 6, Romanian Doina Melinte circled the Coliseum track twice to score gold in 1:57.60. USA’s Kim Gallagher, whom Wysocki had encountered on plenty of occasions, won silver in 1:58.63. Melinte’s teammate, Fita Lovin, won the bronze in 1:58.53.

Wysocki ran sixth (2:00.34).

She also qualified in the 1500, held on Aug. 11.

Wysocki was America’s best in that event, but she took eighth (4:08.32), nowhere close to her best mark set at the Trials.

Melinte won the silver, barely nosed out by Italy’s Gabriella Dorio (4:03.25), the Romanian a fraction behind in 4:03.76 with yet another Romanian, Maricica Puica winning bronze (4:04.15).

Wysocki had to be thinking if she’d matched her lifetime best – that 4:00.18 at the Olympic Trials – she’d have been a gold medalist.

She told Reel, “Even though the Olympics didn’t go really great for me, when I got to Europe after the Olympics, I beat everybody that beat me in the Olympics, including (Dorio).”

It was, she said, some vindication.

Brooks, for his part, sent plenty of half-milers out to do battle in Lady Bulldog colors.

Runner, meanwhile, often reflected on the year that Ruth Kleinsasser ran at Redlands.

“She was,” he said, “not just a hard worker.” Runner said, observers could easily tell, “she had a game plan in any race she ran.”

She even made one last game attempt to qualify for the 1996 Olympics at 38.

That one season, 1975, she was a Redlands Connection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

JOHNSON’S SPEED LED HIM INTO NFL, NOT AMONG WORLD TRACK ELITE

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

It was June 1, 1995. The place was Knoxville, Tenn.

Patrick Johnson, born in Georgia, moved to Redlands, took a football scholarship at the University of Oregon, eventually winding up playing professionally in Baltimore. All evidence pointed to a possible world-class career on the track. Here he was in Tennessee. World class speed seemed to be everywhere.

Johnson, an Oregon freshman, was competing against the likes of Ato Boldon, Obadele Thompson, Donovan Powell and Tim Harden, among others. A month earlier, Johnson had beaten Olympic legend Carl Lewis in nearby Des Moines, Iowa.

On hand was the NCAA Division 1 championships, hosted by the University of Tennessee between May 31-June 3.

Patrick Johnson
Patrick Johnson, an electrifying speedster who found his way from world class track into the NFL (photo by ProAthletes Celebrity).

As a world-class speedster, Johnson never hid from the fact that his first interest in athletics was football. I’ll never forget that moment, either.

“All I wanted to do,” Johnson told me during his senior year at Redlands High in 1994, “was play football. That was my goal. Man, I loved track. But football was something different. It was special.”

It was one of a few chats with, perhaps, one of Redlands’ most accomplished athletes.

Here he was, the reigning track & field star at Redlands in 1994 – the eventual state 100- and 200- meter champion. His times were outrageously quick – a 10.43 to win the 1994 State 100 title, while a 10.61 was quick enough to win the Southern Section Division 1 championship.

Don’t forget the 200, where he turned it on three times to win titles, starting in 1993 with a 21.40 to win the Division 1 championship.

One season later, he not only re-captured the Division 1 title in 21.25, but he beat all comers at the State finals in 21.01.

He was no marginal athlete in either sport. Compared to football, where his skills could’ve been used in a variety of positions on the field, Johnson single-mindedly trained for football – even during spring track season.

That’s the groundwork for Johnson’s upcoming track career. Right?

Even the most casual observer might agree that Johnson’s future seemed to be on that oval that usually surrounds any football field.

As a freshman at Oregon, Johnson beat all comers in the Pacific-10 400-meter finals – 45.38 seconds. He made the NCAA Championships in Knoxville, Tenn. that year, unable to qualify in either the 100 or the 200.

His competition was off the charts.

Guys like Bolden, of UCLA, was winning the 200 in 20.24. Johnson’s prelims time was 20.82 – ninth place, one spot out of a place in the finals.

O._Thompson_Sydney_medal
Obadele Thompson once beat Carl Lewis at the Drake Relays, a 100-meter race in which Redlands’ Patrick Johnson finished second (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

At least Johnson made the 100-finals. But his 10.32 clocking was eighth, and last, in a field headed by Kentucky’s Harden (10.05). In that race was the Jamaican, Powell, whose brother, Asafa Powell, once held the world record (9.74) in the 100.

Harden was part of the Olympic silver medal 4 x 100 relay at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Ato_Boldon_Sydney_2000
Ato Boldon, of UCLA, was a chief rival of Patrick Johnson, the onetime State prep champion from Redlands who took off for the University of Oregon. Boldon celebrated an Olympic medal in this photo at the 2000 Sydney Games (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Boldon, an eventual four-time Olympic medal winner, had false-started in that 1995 100 semifinals, eliminating him from a possible sprint double – a controversial result, in fact.

Carl Lewis
Carl Lewis, a 9-time Olympic champion, took on Redlands’ Patrick Johnson at the 1995 Drake Relays (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

A month, or so, before that year’s NCAAs, Johnson prepped at the Drake (Iowa) Relays – on April 29, 1995. It was there that Johnson beat nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis across the line in the 100-meters. Few recall, however, the Lewis’ career was coming to an end. Or that Johnson didn’t even win that race.

Thomson, a sophomore at Texas-El Paso, won in 10.19. Johnson, an Oregon freshman, was next at 10.26. Lewis, the Olympic hero, was third in 10.32.

SPEED KILLS ON A FOOTBALL FIELD

Johnson’s speed was a rampant weapon on any football field.

In football at Redlands, Johnson never seemed to have that huge, stunning, break-out game that observers would recall in years to come. That never kept him from swaying from his dream.

“Ever since I was little,” said Johnson, “I’ve thought about football.”

His Redlands track records will likely stand the test of time – 10.39 in the 100, 20.79 in the 200, 43.79 in the 400 and anchoring a 4 x 400 relay (3:18.79) are numbers that just don’t point a young man away from track & field.

The tipoff should have been easy to spot.

Upon Johnson’s transfer to Redlands as a junior in 1992, he was declared ineligible because he did not have enough units toward graduation. In Terrier coach Jim Walker’s first season, Johnson was a practice squad player from weeks one through 10. Under those conditions, it would have been easy to find something else to do.

“I remember coaching the defensive backs that season,” said onetime Redlands assistant Dick Shelbourne, “the season Pat missed playing in the games because he was ineligible. He only missed two practices the whole season.”

It was a sure sign to Terrier coaches that Johnson was serious about football. When the playoffs rolled around, Walker and Shelbourne worked him into their games against Capistrano Valley and Loyola – in the secondary.

That was Redlands’ introduction to Johnson, who was eligible to run track later that spring. By his senior year, Walker contemplated Johnson at any one of three different offensive positions – receiver, running back or an option quarterback.

Settling on running back, Johnson’s season was uneventful – 583 yards rushing, another 257 receiving, and the Terriers failed to reach the post-season.

His speed on the track lured interested parties because he played football, too. Johnson opted for the University of Oregon, where he played wide receiver.

Years later when Ducks’ football coach Rich Brooks spoke about Johnson, he chuckled when we chatted. “That speed of his,” he said, “could’ve taken him anywhere – football or track.”

Let’s not forget, either, that Oregon is home to Hayward Field, which is the nation’s top site for track & field. It would be impossible not to feel that emotional tug. He seemed offended if anyone suggested track over football.

He’d shake his head. Mind was made up.

FOOTBALL NUMBERS VERSUS TRACK TIMES

At Oregon from 1994-97, Johnson snagged 143 passes mostly from the likes of Ducks’ QBs Tony Graziani and Akili Smith. His final collegiate game, against Air Force in the Las Vegas Bowl, Johnson took advantage of his blazing speed. Catching five passes for 169 yards, he caught two TD passes from Smith for 69 and 78 yards.

On the other hand, he remains on Oregon’s all-time records list – eighth best in the 100 (that 10.26 at The Drake Relays), tied for second best in the 200 (20.39) and sixth best in the 400 (45.38) – with all electrifying marks.

Remember, this is a historic collegiate program. Ranking among the best at that school is overwhelming.

Though uniquely qualified to take on the world’s best sprinters of the day – Lewis, Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene, among others, Johnson’s chosen field was professional football.

The Ravens made him the 42nd selection in the draft, taken in the second round of the 1998 NFL draft.

Johnson, a two-time NCAA All-American in the 100 and 200 in his only full season of collegiate competition, was expected to win the 400 NCAA championship in 1996.

Plus, he was a staunch favorite to make the USA Olympic team that year.

Remember, The Games were scheduled for Atlanta, Ga., Johnson’s home state.

It’s possible Johnson might have over-trained early that season – trying too hard, perhaps. He was, apparently, in no condition to compete at the NCAAs.

Johnson took second in the Pac-10’s 400-meter finals in 1996.

Those calamities added up. Johnson never stepped on Hayward Field’s track again to compete.