Imagine that you wake up one morning to find that your gift is gone. The gift is running and for years you've done it better than all but a few men in the entire world, and it has enabled you to earn a substantial living, to buy a large home on an acre of land and to start a family. And then suddenly it's gone.
Suddenly, for reasons of chemistry or fate or training or who knows what, you can't recapture the gift, and you must soon or give it up completely.Doug Padilla was nearly on top of the world three years ago. To be precise, he was ranked No. 2 in the world in 1985 in the 5,000-meter run, behind only the great Said Aouita of Morocco; he was the winner of the overall Grand Prix title - not just for the 5,000, but for all of track and field. And he was only 28 years old. Then one day he swept out his dusty garage and began coughing. He's never been the same since then.
In the past 2 1/2 years he has won only a few major races and has disappeared from the world rankings. In a couple of races he has actually been lapped. Padilla isn't even the best American anymore, this from a man who ranked among the top 10 in the world for three straight years. It's all there on the stopwatch. Padilla has broken 13:30 just once since '85, (13:22); in the 5,000, 13:15 and faster is a must in international competition.
Padilla now finds himself at a crossroads in his career as he competes in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Indianapolis this week (the first round of the 5,000 is tonight). Even Padilla, the defending Olympic trials champion, concedes, "I'm expected to make the (Olympic) team - but a lot of people are starting to wonder."
So is Padilla, who has always been filled with self-doubt. And now the pressure is on.
His slump (for lack of a better word) is costing him. "Oh, yeah," says Padilla with a laugh. "We're a lot tighter now." Nike, the shoe company he has endorsed and represented since graduating from BYU, cut his contract in half last year. "For the (monetary) level they had me at, they wanted me in the top 10," says Padilla. "If I didn't make the top 10, they cut my contract in half. It's written right in the contract."
Ironically, at the height of his career, in '85, Padilla received a four-year contract offer from Puma that would have doubled his top salary with Nike. Long-term deals are rare in this sport, but Padilla refused Puma out of loyalty to Nike. Padilla doesn't expect Nike to reciprocate if he doesn't deliver this year.
"If I don't have a good year this year, I could be forced into retirement and I'd have to get a job," says Padilla, whose contract expires in October. "If I had three bad years in a row, (Nike) would be foolish to support me any longer."
A good year means making the U.S. Olympic Team. "It would be awful hard to make the top 10 if I don't make the Olympic team," he says. As extra incentive, Nike also has written in his contract that an Olympic medal is worth cash - $40,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, $10,000 for bronze - thus giving new meaning to the term Going for the Gold.
Padilla was improving steadily and rapidly each track season until 1986, and then began his quick demise. After sweeping the garage of his new home in Orem, he was suddenly beset with allergies and what he describes as an irritation of the lungs. "That was the beginning of my problems," he says.
Since then, he has been chronically tired and, at the height of his allergies, breathing is difficult. Translation: "I don't have much strength. I can't go with the group if the pace is fast. I get broke."
When the pace is slow, as it was in the last national championships, Padilla can usually hang on and outkick the field. But when the pace is fast, he often loses contact with the leaders in the middle of the race.
In the past 2 1/2 years Padilla has had just four major wins - compared to nine in 1985 alone. Among his losses are an eighth-place finish at the World Championship - in a semifinal heat - and a 19th-place showing in Europe.
Yet Padilla remains hopeful. "If I get healthy, I'll be all right," he says.
No one disputes that. Rivals and training partners alike have long marveled at Padilla's natural talents, his gift. He has a distant runner's cardiovascular system, but with sprinter's speed. So gifted is Padilla that he was able to the rise to the top of his sport while doing little training, at least by the standards of most human beings. Whereas most of his rivals train upwards of 80 miles a week, Padilla averages 30 to 40 and always has.
"He's like a race horse," observed one rival. "You just put him out in the pasture a while and let him run a little and then you turn him loose."
"He should be running with Aouita," says Olympic distance runner Paul Cummings. "He's got that much ability. I wish I had his talent."
"I know a lot of high school guys who do more work than he does," says Olympic marathoner Ed Eyestone. "People throughout the world are amazed at what he does. I had a few African friends ask me if it was true what they'd heard about Padilla's workouts. I told them what he does and they said no way, that he must sneak out and do more."
Many observers think he would do well to do more. Says Padilla, "I would be stronger if I put in more miles, but I've never been strong enough to do it."
In the meantime, Padilla searches to regain his form. He has tried everything - diets, breathing through a mask, different doctors (he has been driving regularly to Aspen, Colo., to see a doctor there). So far, nothing has worked, and time might be running out.