Where Your Dreams Become Reality
Looking at a Legend: Tony Waldrop, World Record Holder in 1974, Out of the Sport in 1975
Thirty one years ago Richard Nixon was president, the Vietnam war was winding down, gas was 53 cents a gallon, television broadcasts were black and white in Australia, Steve Prefontaine was still alive, neither Mo Green nor Tiger Woods were yet born, and amazingly the NCAA indoor record in the mile was 3:55.0, just like it is today, thanks to the 3:55.0 world record run by Tony Waldrop of the University of North Carolina on February 17, 1974.
1974 was a magical year for Tony Waldrop. A senior in college, his indoor world record run was an unprecedented fifth-straight sub-four minute mile. Waldrop would extend his record streak of consecutive sub-4 minute miles to nine* (all of them unrabbited according to Waldrop) grace the cover of Track and Field News two times (March and May), win the NCAA title in the indoor mile, win the Penn Relays mile in 3:53.2 and graduate from the University of North Carolina. Although to be fair, we probably should admit that he did lose the mile outdoors at NCAAs. (Editor's note: we suggest you click on those two links entitled March and May as it gives you a good visual representation of just how dominant Waldrop was in his era).
In 1975, Waldrop continued with his running career while an assistant coach at North Carolina, winning the 1500m gold medal at the Pan Am Games. Heading into 1976, an Olympic year, many would assume Waldrop's future couldn't be brighter. Waldrop, too, was thinking about his future and it indeed was bright, but it did not include competitive running. Waldrop quit competitive running with no regrets after the 1976 indoor season to pursue his PhD in physiology.
Today, Waldrop is Dr. Tony Waldrop, the vice chancellor for research and graduate studies at UNC, where he overseas the $577 million in research conducted annually at his alma mater. When talking about his track career, one is struck at how very modest Waldrop comes across in regards to his athletic accomplishments. And given his substantial professional accomplishments in academia, it doesn't seem to be a stretch at all to believe Waldrop when he says it was an "easy decision" to hang up the spikes for good, so he could get on with the rest of his life.
"It was a really easy decision to decide to hang up the shoes and get on with the rest of my life," Waldrop said of his retirement after the 1976 indoor season. Despite his Pan Am gold in 1975, Waldrop says he was only competing "half-heartedly" during 1975, as he was helping coach at UNC . He would eventually pursue graduate work in physiology. but being a political science major, he had to start from scratch and take a year and a half of undergraduate work.
"I never regretted the decision (to retire during the Olympic year), maybe there were one or two seconds (of momentarily regret) when I watched the 1500m at the Olympics... I accomplished a lot more in track than I ever imagined I would. There were a lot more things I wanted to do with my life and I think it would be the same today (even if I was competing in the era of professional track and field)."
Running for fun was the name of the game for Waldrop. Making the Olympics was "never an overwhelming goal" of his and for him the Trials weren't fun at all so walking away from a shot at it wasn't a difficult decision. After winning the Penn Relays in 1974, Waldrop put on a gray jersey with the words "Run For Fun" before giving his post-race interviews. Later that summer he was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I want to run for fun. I tried for the Olympics in 1972 but never again. The pressure of the Olympic trials is too great. It just isn't any fun at all."
And for all the cynics who doubt Waldrop would be able to reject the lure of today's professional contracts, they might believe him a bit more after hearing what he considers his greatest accomplishment in the sport: no, not his world record in the mile, nor his NCAA title in the 1000m, nor his NCAA title in the mile, nor his Pan Am Games gold at 1500m, but rather being All-American in cross country.
"I was proudest of the year I was All American in cross country because I thought it wasn't something I could accomplish," Waldrop says of his "much better" than expected finish of 11th. Clearly, Waldrop while one of America's greatest collegiate runners, ran for his own reasons, not just the accolades of others, and evaluated his running career on his own terms. When pressed about his personal bests 31 years later, he knew his best mile was 3:53.2, but this half miler out of high school did not know what his life time best at 800m was because it was "not that important" to him.
Waldrop is still surprised to have his 31-year old NCAA record, but very modest about his accomplishment. "I'm shocked (about still having the NCAA indoor mile record), but pragmatic about it in that it's not that frequent anymore that the mile is run indoors," Waldrop says of today's era (although we're not really sure if this is true as every indoor meet we know of has a mile in it and even if the appeal of a sub-4 isn't quite what it was back then, today's collegian's have the advantage of running on 200m mondo tracks often-times with rabbits)
Waldrop set his world record on a "10 or 11 lap to the mile" indoor track in San Diego, taking over after the half was reached in 1:59, running a 56 last 400m, in an unrabbited race. Waldrop, who came to college envisioning himself as an 800m runner, relied on his speed as in his own words he "ran from behind" as he had "a very good finish".
After breaking the record, Waldrop told the Associated Press, "I'm still just a country boy from North Carolina... I'm tired of running all these sub-four minutes. There's a lot of pressure, and I don't like pressure. That's why I'll never try the Olympics again.... it wasn't any fun".
Waldrop's streak of sub 4's came to an end at the 1974 Modesto Relays on May 25, where his famed last lap kick didn't materialize, and he ran 4:05.0 for 4th, behind winner Paul Cummings who ran 3:57.7. Waldrop says he was somewhat "relieved to see it happen", as it was "such a relief to not have all the (widespread press) attention" that resulted when the streak was alive. Amazingly, we want to remind you that he ran his 9 straight sub-four minute miles without the help of rabbits - yes 9 straight, all victories, with wins over Marti Liqouri and other legends.
As for the NCAA record in the mile, Waldrop is rooting for someone to break it. When Michigan senior Nate Brannen ran 3:55.16 just missing Waldrop's record this year, Waldrop emailed Brannen saying he was pulling for him.
"It was great to have it at the time, but it doesn't mean very much to me and I'd love to see the enjoyment someone else would have (breaking it)."
Waldrop's been waiting 31 years to see someone else's enjoyment from the record, and who knows how much longer he'll have to wait.
Tony Waldrop on his training:
Tony Waldrop on advice to parents, coaches, and athletes:
"I'm one of the most competitive people around, and there is nothing wrong with that, but if you can't be competitive and enjoy it (the sport) then there is something wrong with that."
Tony Waldrop on his own running:
*Editor's Note: The UNC website says Waldrop ran 11 straight sub 4 minute milers, yet press accounts at the time refer to there being 9. If anyone can clarify this discrepancy we'd appreciate it. Perhaps he ran 2 in 1973 and continued in 1974.
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