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.
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.
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.