Butch Reynolds on TFN cover, October 1988
Butch Reynolds’ record run was iconic. His 43.29 broke the record of Lee Evans! In fact, in the first issue of American Athletics, we feature a piece where Lee Evans speaks about the breaking of his record.
Reynolds faced his toughest fight in challenging a drug positive, which took two years from his career. Reynolds’ challenges went all the way to the Supreme Court and changed the way drug testing was both prosecuted and conducted.
Hunter writes about the good, the bad and the exciting, in this feature on Butch Reynolds, who now looks at the Masters’ WR for 400 meters, specifically, the 50 plus WR.
Reflections From The 400m #2 All Time Performer
At a recent indoor meet at The Ohio State University, Harry “Butch” Reynolds stood alone – stop watch in hand and generally unnoticed – as he shouted encouragement to his women’s quartet preparing to attack the 4 x 400 relay. An entire generation of collegiate track and field athletes – born after Reynolds so dominated the 400m – is mostly oblivious to the fact that only one man, one time has ever circumvented a 400 meter oval faster than this Ohio Dominican University track and field coach.
In 1983, Reynolds concluded a very good – but not spectacular – high school career with an open 400m PR of 47.1. “I didn’t train for track and field in high school,” confesses Reynolds.
Not quite ready for prime time, Reynolds headed to Butler County Community College – a small junior college in Kansas – to refine his skills on the track and in the classroom as he prepared himself for a Div. I track program. At Butler, Reynolds learned the benefits of consistent hard work and focus. After a successful stint in Kansas – which included some junior college national titles both indoors and out and a 400m PR improvement to 45.04 – Reynolds was ready to return to Ohio and be part of a big-time program at The Ohio State University.
After arriving in Columbus, the young athlete immediately clicked with OSU head coach Frank Zubovich. And his ongoing education about how to be a quarter mile champion continued. “I learned about conditioning, how to handle running the rounds in the 400 meters, the importance of determination, never giving up, always doing your best.”
Reynolds brought an inspirational edge to Ohio State. It was a handmade sign given to him by his junior college coach who told the young athlete he could become a world record holder. The poster read: “Butch Reynolds / 43.86 / World Record.” It was a reference to Lee Evan’s 400m world record time set in the 1968 Olympic 400m final in the light-aired altitude of Mexico City. How did that handmade wall hanging influence Reynolds? “The day I put that sign in my room,” Reynolds candidly admits, “I felt I could reach that goal.” That dorm room sign was Reynold’s daily reminder of his quest for the 400m world best clocking. Under Zubovich’s tutelage, progression came quickly. When in the 1987 outdoor season the OSU quarter miler ran 44.10 – the then-fastest 400m ever run at sea level – Reynolds knew he was finally ready for the assault on Lee Evans’ long-standing 400m world record.
The moment of truth came the next summer in Switzerland. Conditions were right on a late August evening in Zurich’s Leitzigrund Stadium. Reynolds would run out of Lane 4 amidst a star studded field. “I had never run there before. And when I got there, the crowd was really into it. They were electrifying,” he explains. Reynolds knew this race would be a one-lap war. “I didn’t go into the race saying I would take down Evans’ record that day. My goal was to win,” Reynolds reveals. “And I knew that Steve [Lewis] and Danny [Everrett] were in the field so I knew I didn’t want to coast that day. I also knew that Egbunike [Nigeria’s Innocent Egbunike] would get out extremely fast in Lane 7 – and he did. I hit the backstretch and I just wanted to run my own race, but I saw Egbunike way out there and I thought, ‘he’s not coming back,’ explains Reynolds. “And that’s when I decided to react and go with it now.” And after a pause, he adds, “And I went with it. And the rest is history.” In the post-race mob scene, Reynolds was breathless and confused – uncertain what he had done. “My brother rushed up to hug me and he told me I did it [erased Evans’ 43.86 WR with his 43.29 clocking]. I just wanted to hit the ground. I was exhausted.”
Later that same season. the newly-crowned world record holder arrived in Seoul as the heavy favorite to win the gold medal in the men’s 400 meters. In the Olympic final, Reynolds’ teammate Lewis exploded from the blocks crisply to gain a quick advantage on an inattentive Reynolds. It proved to be a disastrous gap Reynolds could not close. Reynolds – always a furious finisher – uncorked a terrific homestretch drive to get up for the silver as the 19-year old Lewis snatched the gold. Reynold’s subsequent 4 x 400m relay gold medal was small consolation for the world record holder who knew his early distraction in the 400m final spoiled his golden opportunity. Reynolds unabashedly admits his gaffe of inattention at one of the most important moments of his life. “I was totally in a different world. I was definitely unfocused. My mindset wasn’t right,” he readily admits. “If there was one race I could have back to do again, that would be it.”
Reynolds found a way to turn his Olympic 400m disappointment into something positive. “That final taught me a valuable lesson about life,” he declares. “It taught me to always do your best every day. Make it a habit to never give up and always be your best every day.” And Reynolds has strived to incorporate that hard-earned lesson into his daily life. “After that day, I started doing my best in everything I did every day,” Reynolds soberly explains. “I went back to Ohio State to finish my degree and my grades improved greatly. And I thought, “What was I thinking before this? Why was I thinking this way [that I could do less than my best]?” So now when I talk to kids, I try to motivate kids by getting them to understand this concept.”
In the early ’90’s, the Olympian’s emotional durability was put to a supreme test when a 1990 examination suggested he had used illegal drugs. A long and arduous legal battle ensued – complicated by evidence demonstrating sample mislabeling, threats and other strong-armed tactics by governing bodies in the sport, a face-saving, dogged prosecution – and even a dramatic intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the end, Reynolds was ultimately compelled to fulfill the ordered suspension during his late 20’s – a penalty that caused the world record holder to lose two prime years of competition.
After his suspension was concluded and displaying an athletic and emotional resiliency few expected, Reynolds quickly returned to high performance levels. Perhaps his shining track and field moment may well have been the men’s final of the 4 x 400m relay in the 1993 World Championships. “That race made a big change in the sport,” states Reynolds in reference to the dream quartet of Andrew Valmon, Quincy Watts, Reynolds, and Michael Johnson that closed the show in Stuttgart. “The way the race went down, even though I was the world record holder, Michael Jonson was running fast,” Butch explains. “And I told Mike, ‘You anchor and I’ll bring it to you.'” And Reynolds did just that. The USA quartet’s winning time of 2:54.29 – which shattered the previous WR by 1.45 seconds – is so other-worldly that the Stuttgart record clocking is not only still standing nearly 22 years later, no other quarter miler foursome has come within a full second of that World Championship winning time.
But perhaps the most important and enduring track & field moment for Butch Reynolds might have come not on the oval – but on the medal stand. “[When the Stuttgart 4 x 400m relay final was over] Primo [Nebiolo, the then-President of the IAAF] came down, trying to give me my gold medal. Everyone kept hollering, ‘Primo, Primo, Primo.,'” explains Reynolds. “It was weird be
cause the other three guys had received their medals and I turned around and there was Primo prepared to give me my medal. As he was giving me my gold medal, he looked me and said, ‘You’re a very strong man.’ And I told him, ‘I appreciate it. And you are, too.'” “I was kinda like redemption,” Reynolds reveals. “I was on a mission [in Stuttgart]. I had the people’s support during all of that time [during his struggles with the IAAF].” That impromptu moment was the closest Butch Reynolds ever came to receiving anything approaching an apology for the protracted and politically-charged manner by which his bungled drug testing was handled.
Six years later in Seville, Michael Johnson – the anchor man on that magical Stuttgart 4×4 squad – would clock 43.18 to win the 400m world championship. While Reynolds’ 11 year old world record also went down in that race, to date no other 400m racer has come within .21 seconds of Reynold’s Zurich mark of 43.29 which still stands as the #2 performance on the all-time world list.
Victimized by a botched drug testing procedure which led to a Muhammad Ali-like period of enforced idleness at the zenith of his career, Butch Reynolds is refreshingly unencumbered by any detectable hint of bitterness about his lost opportunities as a long sprinter. In fact, Reynolds is able to focus on what good has come from his woefully mishandled drug testing. “It [my drug testing case] changed a lot rules and regulations because of my case,” he explains. “You now have the right to due process which is a plus. And you probably will never again have the kind case like mine which is a plus.”
Reynolds – who retired from elite track and field competition in 1999 – has moved on to find other ways to succeed, to make a difference. The former 400m world record holder founded the Butch Reynolds Care For Kids Foundation – an educational facility for youngsters headquartered in a nearby Columbus suburb. And after a tour of duty assisting the football team at The Ohio State University as its Speed Coach, Reynolds has renewed his love affair with track and field at Ohio Dominican University – a small Dominican school of 2660 students located in Columbus – where he serves as the Head Speed Coach of its track and field program.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, ODU’s Head Speed Coach now has his sights set on a new challenge: to take down the 50+ world record in the men’s 400 meters – a 51.39 second record time set by American Fred Sowerby in 1999. Reynolds – who turned 50 last June – is in magnificent shape as he prepares his run up toward a record attempt. And Reynolds has assembled a support posse to assist him on his assault on Sowerby’s world record. “I have my old coach Frank Zubovich. I have my old message therapist. We’ve been training. We’ve been working it out,” Reynolds outlines. “And we’re planning to take a European tour, go to a couple of meets in Europe, go to a couple meets in the U.S., and then go to France and maybe run an 800, and then go to China to run in the Masters 800 in Beijing.” But what about the 400m 50+ record? “I am targeting a 400m record attempt either in France or in the U.S. Masters Championships.” How does he assess his capability? “My goal is first the world record,” the former 400m world record holder explains. And with a smile he adds, “Then I think I could dip under 49.”
Too little attention is paid to the fact that brief, pivotal moments in our lives can have a tremendous transformational impact. In the case of Butch Reynolds, an aggregate of less than a minute has made an enormous difference in his life. His unfocused handful of seconds in the first 100 meters of the ’88 Olympic 400m final cost Reynolds – the overwhelming favorite – the individual gold medal he sought. And in 1999, just over 43 seconds in Seville’s 400m final changed the life of Michael Johnson – and the then-retired Reynolds – as Johnson grabbed the world championship and broke Reynolds’ world record. Had those precious seconds – now forever gone – unfolded differently, Reynolds is likely to have captured that individual Olympic gold and might still hold a 400m global best which would now be approaching its 27th anniversary. But Butch Reynolds is not looking back. He is looking forward – and with the determination to make every second count.
Dave Hunter, who ran his marathon P.R. of 2:31:40 on the highly revered Boston Marathon course back in the Paleozoic era, is a track and field announcer, broadcaster, and journalist. To find out more about Dave, please visit www.trackandfieldhunter.com
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