The phone rang right in the middle of training on Wednesday, March 17, and my first thought was, “Oh hell no, another stupid St Patrick’s Day greeting !!”. But looking at the phone number I knew it was from John Smith.
Hey man, Wayne just passed.
What ?
Yeah, Wayne just passed today.
Man,…. that is the second Olympic silver medalist in the 400 meters to pass in the last couple of years. Losing Wayne Collett and Larry James so close together is really sad, really a bad thing .
Yeah, it’s really a serious trip ! I don’t want to take up too much of your time and I got some more phone calls to make to people to let them know about his passing.
Yeah, talk with you later.
John and Wayne were team mates at U.C.L.A. in the glory years of that storied program that won 11 NCAA national titles before, during, and right after John and Wayne were there. During those days, Jim Bush, the head coach, had the program on a very impressive run and they attracted the very best talent in California, as well as elsewhere. But it was more than just strong recruiting, there was a system of talent development and improvement that was almost unique with the U.C.L.A. program. John and I had often talked about Jim Bush and Wayne Collett because of John’s relationship with both of them. Jim Bush called Wayne Collett the greatest athlete he ever coached. When you consider the great athletes that came out of that program, that is really a great accolade and praise for Wayne. The relationship between John and Jim Bush was less cordial, and at times was very salty. John felt that Bush favored Wayne and as a young man on his way up, this caused John some testy moments with both Jim and Wayne, but death, like pure competition, is the ultimate leveler and we tend to put petty stuff behind us in these circumstances as the magnitude of the occasion itself takes over from petty concerns and small slights.
John was there when Wayne enjoyed the pinnacle of his success at the 1972 Olympics, winning the silver medal in the 400 meters behind Vince Matthews.
John had pulled a muscle in a “warm up” meet the Friday before the start of the Olympic Games on a cold, windy night in nearby Austria. At the time John was #1 in the world and the world record holder at 440 yards ( still is ). He watched as his gold medal was placed around the next of someone else and to some degree has been chasing that medal every since. I see this in his eyes and body language as he goes about preparing athletes he coaches. There is a drive and demand there that he imparts to athletes, that harkens back to a time when he could/would do it himself at the very highest levels, given the opportunity. Having been greatly disappointed in 1972, he does not take success for granted, or as his personal case of entitlement, or birthright.
But now he has to reflect back on a team mate gone. He will relive those warm days of Southern California when the competition between him and Wayne was very hot. He will relive the personal pain and disappointment of Munich, but see the success his friend and team mate enjoyed there through a different prism of reality and finality.
Wayne is gone. This being the case , John will take it upon himself to redouble the excellence and effort of what he passes on to those he coaches,…. as a silent, and perhaps the only, fitting tribute to his team mate.
Brooks T. Johnson
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