April 11, 2003
By Dale Grummert
Courtesy of the Lewiston Morning Tribune
PULLMAN -- When coaches offered Eric Dudley a partial scholarship midway through his career as a Washington State track athlete in 2000, he gave them a highly unusual response: No thank you.
"I asked them to take the money and find me a training partner instead," he said this week.
Dudley is the senior 400-meter hurdler who, last week at the Texas Relays, produced the second-fastest collegiate time in the nation this season, 49.70 seconds, which is also the second-best time in WSU history.
The 2003 Cougars make their home debut Saturday in a nonscoring men's and women's meet at Mooberry Track, with the University of Idaho also on hand.
Dudley can now claim the benefit of training partners -- other male hurdlers who follow the same workout regimen, though they run the race five seconds slower than Dudley does.
Three years ago, however, he was something of an island, a common complaint in college track these days: A meet includes up to 19 individual events, but the NCAA limits a team to 12 scholarships. Loneliness isn't just for long-distance runners anymore.
When Dudley insisted on maintaining his walk-on status after placing third in the Pac-10 Conference meet as a sophomore, Cougar coaches did try to find another athlete of his caliber and general training needs. They tried for two years, but recruits kept slipping through their grasp -- failing an entrance exam or getting an 11th-hour call from USC.
Dudley pieced together his own financial package, partly through academic scholarships. He was a co-valedictorian in high school and now carries a 3.97 grade-point average in college.
In his first four years at the Pullman campus, he trained with a member of the WSU women's team, Randi Smith, an accomplished hurdler in her own right. But she necessarily followed her own pace. If Dudley wanted to simulate race conditions, he was out of luck.
"I'd roam from group to group almost nomadically -- train with the 800 runners, with the 400 runners, with the sprinters," he said.
After this season, the problem is likely to solve itself. Dudley placed fifth in the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 2001, redshirted with an ankle injury the following season, and now looks stronger than ever. If he can shave another second off his time, he might be U.S. Olympic material next year.
Who could have foreseen this? His track career at Sehome High at Bellingham, Wash., was good but not stellar. The University of California and Washington State made modest scholarship offers, but he enrolled at WSU on a small engineering scholarship instead.
His family background had predisposed him to recreational sports, albeit in heavy doses. The summer after his freshman year of high school, he and his father, a mental-health administrator, bicycled from Bellingham to Washington, D.C., covering about 70 miles a day. They spent another summer canoeing amongst the tiny islands between northern Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland.
After talking to Dudley for a few moments, you're not surprised to learn he's majoring in mechanical engineering, or that he plans to study biomechanics in graduate school. He speaks quietly and precisely, with an occasional hint of satisfaction at a well-expressed turn of logic.
He and WSU assistant coach Mark Macdonald analyze a 400-meter hurdles race as if were a model for a suspension bridge. When all goes well, Dudley takes an efficient 13 strides between each of the first six hurdles -- at 6-foot-3, he has the stride length to pull this off -- and then takes 14 steps between each of the rest. He surmounts the seventh and ninth hurdles with his nondominant leg. These days, he is studying the middle section of the race -- hurdles 4 through 7 -- in search of flaws in his technique. Before the season is done, he hopes to break Boyd Gittins' school record of 49.27, set in 1968 and now the oldest record in the WSU books. At the time, it was also the national record.
Dudley moved into second place on the all-time WSU list with his win at the Texas Relays last Saturday at Austin. The man he displaced was Macdonald, who ran 50.05 for the Cougars in 1992.
"In my mind, he surpassed me long ago," the coach said. "It was just a matter of time."
Macdonald agrees with Dudley that the addition of Leyk, Nygard and Manthey to the 400 hurdles crew this year has helped his star senior, at least in intangible ways.
But he plays down Dudley's supposed quest for a workout partner, and said the financial high road he assumed in 2000 and 2001 -- his renunciation of athletic scholarship money -- was even more selfless than it appears.
"It's important to realize that Eric is not independently wealthy, and his academic scholarship wasn't all that big," the coach said. "So he was really making a sacrifice.
"He wasn't specifically doing it for a training partner. He was motivated by any good athlete on the team. He never specifically directed it -- 'I need someone to make me better.' It was always, 'I just want to be on a good team.'
"It was very unselfish. It's rare to see that."