One night when he was three years old, Roger Kingdom watched a Western in which a number of unsavory hombres got strung up. The next morning, his curiosity piqued, Roger climbed up on a windowsill, wrapped the cord from a Venetian blind around his neck and jumped. Luckily, he was not as good at tying knots as he was at giving his mother fits. Alerted by the screams of her other children, Christine Kingdom rushed into the room and found Roger on the floor with the Venetian blind and its supports on top of him. He was dazed but grinning.
"He was a child you would never dare," says Christine, "because whatever you dared him to do, he'd go right out and do it."
Twenty-three years later, Kingdom, the 1984 Olympic champion in the 110-meter hurdles and the favorite to win again in Seoul, remains, as he says, daring: "I'm reckless. At any given moment in a hurdles race, I'm capable of trying something different, trying to step down a little quicker or to bring my trail leg through faster. Anything to enhance performance."
The 6'1½", 195-pound Kingdom goes to Seoul with expectations different from those he took to Los Angeles. As a University of Pittsburgh junior at the '84 U.S. trials, he had to match his personal best of 13.36 seconds to finish third and make the team. Ahead of him were two veterans, Greg Foster, who won the trials and was the strong favorite at the Games, and Tonie Campbell. Most experts picked Kingdom to bring home the bronze.
September 11, 1988
In the final in L.A., Kingdom charged from behind, caught Foster at the 10th and last hurdle and beat him to the tape by .03. The finish was so close even Kingdom didn't know he had won. While shaking hands with Campbell, he said something about finishing second.
"You didn't finish second," said Campbell, who was fifth. "You won it."
The road from surprise Olympic champion in 1984 to favorite in 1988 has not been smooth. First there were the whispers that his gold medal race was a fluke. Never mind that his 13.20 had set an Olympic record. A lot of people believed that Kingdom had not so much won the race as Foster had lost it. NO. 2 FINISH FOR NO. 1 HURDLER read the headline in The New York Times. Kingdom answered those questions by earning the No. 1 world ranking for 1984 and '85, and lowering his best to 13.14.
Then, during a race in Nice on July 16, 1985, he suffered a severe hamstring pull. Thus began 2½ years of frustration. "I committed a cardinal sin," Kingdom says. "I just let the injury go [untreated]. I was frustrated. I tried to get away from track and field." When he did return to hurdling the next year, he discovered that the hamstring, which had healed for the purposes of walking and jogging, was as bad as ever for competition. "I tried to come back too quickly three or four times, and I reinjured it," he says.
In 1986 Kingdom's world ranking fell to fourth. The next year was even more disappointing: He was not even ranked among the top 10 Americans.
It wasn't until late 1987 that he got serious about rehabilitating the hamstring. Two things spurred him on. "I was watching the World Championships on television," he recalls. "The commentators started talking about Roger Kingdom and saying, 'Where's the guy been?' "
Then there was something that his grandfather had once told him: "If a man can go work his own hours and make a living out of doing something he loves to do, you would think he would go out and be the best he can at it."
That was all Kingdom needed to hear. He found an orthopedist in Pittsburgh, Dr. Freddie Fu, who put Kingdom on a program that included ultrasound, stretching and massage therapy. Soon he was training seriously again.
"I was at my peak when I got injured, and I decided I didn't want to go out that way," Kingdom says. "I had to fight back to show people I was legit. I was making some progress; then in January my grandfather died. After that I bottomed out."
Matt Wallace, Roger's grandfather, had been the bedrock of the Kingdom family. A stern but loving man who at 6'6" was also physically imposing, Wallace had exerted a profound influence on Roger while he was growing up, and more after his mother and father separated, when he was in high school. Roger and his four brothers and one sister spent as much time as possible playing and working on the 300-acre farm in Vienna, Ga., 50 miles south of Macon, where Wallace raised peanuts, cotton and watermelons. Recalls Kingdom: "Nothing but trees around and open fields. If I felt like working out, I would go out in the fields and run all the way to the woods and back. Most of the fields were freshly plowed, so it was like running in sand."
All the Kingdoms were athletic. Roger's oldest brother, Roy, was state high school champ in the 440 and also competed in the shot and discus, while his sister, Lorrye, was state champ in the 110-yard hurdles. But Roger was special. In his junior and senior years at Vienna High, he won state titles in an unusual triple—the 120-yard hurdles, the high jump and the discus, setting state Class-AA records in the hurdles (13.7) and the high jump (6'10¼") during his senior year.
In both his junior and senior years he won the award as the outstanding track and field athlete in Georgia; in his junior year he beat out a senior named Herschel Walker.
Kingdom was equally impressive on the football field, earning all-state honors at running back. He decided to go to Pitt on a full football scholarship because Panther coach Jackie Sherrill was willing to let him run track in the spring. As a freshman in 1981, Kingdom rushed just four times, for nine yards. The next year Foge Fazio, who had been Pitt's defensive coordinator, replaced Sherrill as head coach and moved Kingdom to free safety. "I would have liked to have stayed at running back," says Kingdom, who concentrated on track after he chose to be a red-shirt as a junior.
Kingdom's football career sagged, but his track career blossomed. At Pitt he met two people who would have a huge impact on his hurdling. One was Elbert Kennedy, the coach of both the Pitt women's track team and the New Image Track Club in Pittsburgh. The soft-spoken Kennedy was primarily a sprint coach, but he and his pupil learned about hurdling from each other. By his sophomore year Kingdom had lowered his personal best to a world-class 13.44.
The second major influence was Joy Shepard, a physics major from New York City whom Kingdom began dating during his freshman year. After Kennedy left Pitt in 1985, he couldn't spend as much time with Kingdom, and the analytical Shepard became his day-to-day coach. What she didn't know about the event she learned from listening to Roger and other hurdlers and by studying films. "I had film coming out of my eyeballs," she says, groaning. Coach and athlete now share a two-bed room apartment in Monroeville, just east of Pittsburgh.
In one respect, Shepard and Kennedy have allowed Kingdom to depart from classic hurdling technique by not trying to convert him into an elegant performer. After all, they say, the point of hurdling well is simply to get back down on the ground as soon as possible. So Kingdom eschews the classic straight-legged style used by such past greats as Rod Milburn and Willie Davenport. Instead, he hurdles with his lead leg intentionally bent.
"It's very unorthodox," Kingdom admits, "but it's going to be the style of the future because it gets you down off the hurdle much quicker. Let me get on the ground and I'm going to beat these guys."
And he does. He is undefeated in 15 finals this year and has beaten the top contenders for Seoul. (Two Soviets, Aleksandr Markin and Vladimir Shishkin, ran 13.20 and 13.21, respectively, in June in Leningrad, but Kingdom has not raced against them.) Kingdom also has beaten his own Olympic record of 13.20 seven times this year, the most sub-13.20's ever in a season.
Kingdom's journey over the 42-inch barriers is a blur of violent collisions. There is no rule against hitting hurdles, only against knocking them down deliberately. The real penalty is imposed by the clock.
"Roger is speed and power," former world-record holder Renaldo Nehemiah said at the Olympic trials in July. "He's not a great technician, but the days of the pretty hurdler are over. It's getting the job done [that counts]. The day hurdlers overcome their fear and are willing to take risks, that's when you'll see another sub-13."
The first sub-13 was by Nehemiah, who set the world record of 12.93 in 1981. The second occurred on Aug. 11, when Kingdom, who had been taking risks all year, finally saw them pay off. In the 6,668-foot altitude of Sestriere, Italy, he overcame a stumbling start to run 12.97.
By Kingdom's standards Sestriere was a clean race: He hit only two hurdles. However, three weeks earlier, in the Olympic trials final—the most important race he will run this year apart from the Olympic final itself—Kingdom hit the fourth hurdle so hard that it slammed down onto the track and bounced a foot into the air. He went on to hit the fifth, the seventh and the 10th hurdles before lunging across the line first in a wind-aided 13.21. If Kingdom wins in Seoul, he will become only the second hurdler to successfully defend the Olympic 110-meter championship; the first was Lee Calhoun, who won in 1956 and '60.
After the Games, Kingdom will return to Pitt to get the economics degree he has been working toward as a part-time student. He also plans to expand his track and field repertoire to 10 events, aiming for the 1992 Olympics as a decathlete. (He will continue, however, to compete in the hurdles.) Why not try the decathlon? Since high school Kingdom has improved his high jump best to 7'1¾", put the shot 50 feet, long-jumped 25 feet and run 10.4 and 46.5 in the 100 and 400. "The only event I haven't done is the pole vault. So after the Olympics I'm going to find myself a good coach," he says.
For now, though, Kingdom is concentrating on one event and one race: "I have to win the Olympics...again." He stops and smiles. "Doesn't that sound good? Again."