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Spinning Straw Into Gold
Kenny Moore
December 24, 1984
Raised in poverty, Joaquim Cruz of Brazil became a prince in his sport after his impressive Olympic 800
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December 24, 1984

Spinning Straw Into Gold

Raised in poverty, Joaquim Cruz of Brazil became a prince in his sport after his impressive Olympic 800

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In January 1983, 19 months before winning the gold medal in the Olympic 800 meters, Joaquim Cruz was in agony. His right heel was being pinched in a cold, tightening grip. Tendon injuries gnaw equally on will and fiber. They're with you every step you take and seldom repair if you don't stop running. So if you're 19, as Cruz was, and running is your only means to an education, as it was for Cruz, you think the end of the world cannot be far away.

Cruz's pain was the culmination of a series of maddening injuries and frustrations that had occurred since September 1982, when he and his coach, Luiz de Oliveira, moved to the U.S. from Brazil. Cruz had spent the previous six months recovering from the removal of a bone spur in the same foot. He was struggling to learn English and had failed his first try at the entrance exam for the University of Oregon. The world junior record of 1:44.3 for 800 meters that he'd set in 1981 seemed so long ago, it might have been set by another person.

De Oliveira took Cruz to Dr. Stan James, the orthopedic surgeon who was one of the reasons they had been drawn to Oregon after first alighting for a few months at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. James remembers that de Oliveira was near tears with worry. Cruz was stolid. When James, who does not diagnose with caressing tenderness, ran his wide, curious fingers down the runner's calf and began to probe the sore tendon, he watched Cruz for the gasp or wince that should have come as he neared the spot. Yet Cruz's face remained impassive, and his huge brown eyes stayed fixed on the wall, unreadable.

"To see where it hurt," James says now, in some wonder, "I had to watch de Oliveira. He cared so much about this kid that it was as if Cruz's nerves registered in de Oliveira's brain."

James could discover no incapacitating lesion that would require surgery. Instead, he filled a large syringe with dilute cortisone and delicately slipped the needle through the paratenon, the thin, fibrous covering of the tendon, but not into the tendon itself. Then he injected the solution, to physically stretch the paratenon and break up the adhesions. "It was painful," says James, "though Joaquim never let on. I did the same thing to Mary Decker a few weeks before the Olympics, and she said nothing had ever hurt her more."

After the swelling subsided, four days later, Cruz was able to run without pain. He went on to regain, his form that spring and summer, win the NCAA 800 and finish third in the World Championships at Helsinki.

Then last summer he won the Olympic 800 meters so easily that silver medalist and world-record holder Sebastian Coe of Great Britain immediately announced his retirement from the event.

"That's my last major 800," Coe said to friends. "This is just no fair. I'm being mugged by a teenager." Coe, 27, was engaging in shocked hyperbole; Cruz is all of 21. But it didn't seem fair. At 6'2" and 170, with that immense stride never showing a hint of fatigue, Cruz had flown away from the field in the stretch, winning in 1:43.00, an Olympic record, breaking Alberto Juantorena's 1:43.50 set in Montreal in 1976.

Yet after all that and more—after running an 800 in Cologne in 1:41.77, a mere .04 second off Coe's 1981 world record; after mastering English and completing two years at Oregon and leading the Ducks to the NCAA title with an 800-1,500 double last June; after buying a BMW 318i and learning how to drive it—Cruz still harks back to the silent despond that preceded all these joys. And to the man who led him out of it.

"Luiz told me that no one would like me if I didn't talk," Cruz says. He is driving a friend through Eugene's winter rain. The friend smiles at the idea of no one liking Cruz. He thinks of the young Brazilian's rangy, gleaming ease on the track and his mildness away from competition, of how this combination evokes unguarded utterances of yearning from otherwise decorous young women.

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