DURHAM -- The first Saturday in May has always belonged to Churchill Downs, just as it did on May 5, 1956 when a bay colt named Needles emerged from deep in the pack and stormed down the home stretch to win the 82nd running of the Kentucky Derby in astonishing fashion.
On this particular Saturday, though, astonishing speed ruled from coast to coast in America, as the greatest two minutes in sports was bracketed neatly by a pair of fleet human feats that required twice, and half, the stop-watch time posted by the thoroughbred champion.
During a track meet at the Los Angeles Coliseum, 38,543 spectators watched Australian Jim Bailey upset his countryman and world record holder John Landy in the mile run, clocking 3:58.6 for the first sub-4:00 mile ever on American soil. Meanwhile, in Durham, 19-year-old Blue Devil Dave Sime spent less than a minute sprinting across the cinder track at Duke Stadium, but in the process set one world record and barely missed two others during a dual meet with North Carolina.
Life magazine, the iconic weekly news album of the era, fortuitously was on hand to document all three spectacles for one of its customary photojournalism treatments celebrating America’s “Big Day At The Races.” In Sime’s case, a full page of pictorial coverage was devoted to his exploits and delivered across the land to nearly 8 million readers during this heyday of magazine circulation. (In comparison, the most watched episode ever of ESPN’s SportsCenter is estimated at 6.4 million viewers, from a population that has almost doubled since the mid-1950s.)
This was not Sime’s first foray into the record books and national headlines, nor would it be his last. But it was a fascinating moment in time that captured both the prodigious natural talent and the promise of future glory that Sime carried to the starting line for every race thereafter.
From the vantage point of history, on the occasion of his death at age 79, Sime is still regarded by many as Duke’s all-time greatest athlete. But 60 years ago, during his sophomore year, he was just beginning to break loose. He had run only three track meets in his life before college (one high school, two summer AAUs) and was actually at Duke on a baseball scholarship, with the stated aim of eventually reaching the major leagues so he could earn enough money to pay his way through medical school.
Sime’s life began to change, though, during the 1956 winter track season, when he swept the sprint series at a meet in Washington, D.C., and posted his first world record of 9.5 seconds for an indoor 100. He went to Madison Square Garden and sparkled at the Millrose Games, then returned south for the ACC indoor championships, where he matched the world record in the 60-yard dash.
Loyal to Duke baseball coach Ace Parker, Sime had every intention of splitting his spring between the diamond and the track. But Parker — himself a former Blue Devil multi-sport star — could see that Sime was something special. “Ace,” said former Duke track coach Al Buehler, “was a guy who was big enough to say, ‘Dave, you got a chance to make the Olympic team. I’ll excuse you from baseball.’”
By the time the Duke-UNC dual meet rolled around on May 5, Sime not only appeared to be a lock for the U.S. Olympic team but a legitimate contender for gold. He had devoured all the reading material he could find on sprinting, sought advice from other speedsters, and listened intently as Duke All-America Joel Shankle counseled him on the fine art of relaxing during the heat of competition. Sime worked fervently with his head coach Bob Chambers and assistant Red Lewis on improving his starts — a necessity to uncoil his 6-foot-3 frame from the crouch of the blocks into upright acceleration mode, where he thrived — and he bolstered his strength with rigorous sessions of running the steps at Duke Stadium and lifting weights in his dorm room.
“I was working out really hard,” Sime remembered in a 2013 telephone interview. “I would do my track work, and I was taking pre-med so I was on a pretty busy schedule. After I would go home to the dorm, I would study for 45 minutes and exercise for 10, study for another 45-50 minutes and exercise for 10. I was doing about three sets of exercises, squats and stuff like that. I had this big metal bed and I would do lifts with it. I got really strong, and that’s how I was able to do the field events.”
Sime consistently ran at 9.6 seconds or faster in the 100 during the early stages of the dual meet season, and twice startled the timers at 9.4, just a tenth of a second off world-record pace. The week before the Duke-Carolina showdown, he pulled off his most spectacular feat thus far by defeating Abilene Christian’s Bobby Morrow BY A YARD on a muddy track at the Drake Relays. Overcoming raw conditions and two false starts, Sime handed Morrow his first loss since his junior year of high school and left the national press gushing over the battles these two were sure to run on bigger stages in the coming summer.
Until about 1970, dual meets formed the backbone of the college track regular season — two schools going head-to-head on a 15-event card. Duke’s 1956 team was undefeated in duals entering the UNC contest. There had been only one close call, the Blue Devils’ home opener with Navy, which Duke won 67-64. Sime took first place in five events that day for 25 points, clinching the team victory with a win in the discus, the first time he had ever thrown it in a meet. A published account estimated that 3,000 fans had been in attendance — an unheard of crowd for a college track meet in the South. Sime was the major attraction.
There was plenty of hype for the final regular season meet with North Carolina, and it helped that the Tar Heels also featured a potential Olympian in middle distance runner Jim Beatty, who one day would become the first man to break four minutes for an indoor mile. Beatty was coming off his second straight two-mile championship at the Penn Relays and was in peak form for the Duke meet. He easily won both the one-mile and two-mile, and according to Durham newspaper columnist Jack Horner, he was cheered enthusiastically by a crowd that was on its feet as he crossed the line. “It’s doubtful if any Carolina athlete ever received the applause he was given by a Duke audience when he turned on the steam and headed for home,” Horner wrote.
But this was Sime’s day. His parents had come down from their home in Fair Lawn, N.J., to watch him compete for the first time as a collegian, and he put on quite a show in the six events he tackled, three on the track and three in the field. He slightly injured his hip while doing the broad jump and in fact passed on his last attempt even though he was a half-inch behind the leader, settling for second place. He took another second in the high jump and placed third in the discus.
It was his performance on the track that made this the most distinctive collegiate dual meet in Duke history. “We knew from what Dave was doing that there wasn’t anybody from Carolina who was going to stay with him,” Buehler recalled. “It was just a matter of how badly he was going to beat them and how fast he was going to run.”
Here’s how fast he ran: He won the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds and the 220 in 20.3, both times just one-tenth of a second off the world record. Then came his last run of the day, the 220 low hurdles. The team score was tied at 58.5 points apiece with just two events remaining as he approached the starting line. At that time, the 220-yard events were run on a straightaway that started down by the old halftime house at the end of the football practice field and ended at the finish line in the bowl of the stadium. “They looked like midgets down there,” said Buehler. “We had to tell our timers, ‘Look for the smoke, don’t wait for the sound (of the starter’s pistol),’ because it would take x-tenths of a second for the sound to get up there but you would see the smoke instantaneously.”
Sime shot out of the blocks, skimmed across the hurdles, bumped the next-to-last one with his right knee, and when the smoke cleared had posted a time of 22.2 seconds — besting the world record of 22.3 that Harrison Dillard had established nine years earlier in Salt Lake City. It was Sime’s first outdoor world record, and the first ever set on the Duke track.
According to the columnist Horner, Sime rushed over to Chambers as soon as the time was announced. “Is that right, Coach? Is that right?” he exclaimed. “Gosh, I went all out. I ran with all my might, Coach. Honest, I gave it all I had. I ran with all my might.”
Sime then confided to Horner, “I never felt better than I did in those low hurdles today. I had a feeling I was going faster than usual. I was running on my toes all the way and those hurdles just seemed to be going under me faster.”
Horner described the sense of shock and amazement that prevailed as the performance registered among the crowd and the Duke officials on hand. “I’ve been in college athletics 36 years,” noted director of athletics Eddie Cameron, “and this is the first time I’ve seen a world record broken.” Another local scribe asserted that only the legendary Jesse Owens had ever enjoyed a better college performance, referencing his marks from the 1935 Big Ten Championships of 9.4 in the 100, 20.3 in the 220, 22.6 in the low hurdles and 26-8.25 in the broad jump. At that time, a year before Sime was born, three of those marks set new world records and the other matched the world mark. Sime had equaled or topped all of Owens’ figures except the broad jump, where he posted a mark of 23 feet, 2.5 inches. The combined time of Owens’ three runs was 52.3 seconds; Sime’s was 51.9.
Sime’s win in the hurdles, coupled with teammate Bobby Sparrow’s second place finish, gave Duke all the points it needed to clinch the meet, completing an undefeated season.
From that point onward, the attention garnered by Sime shifted into another gear. A week after the UNC meet, Duke hosted the ACC Championships for the first time and over 6,000 fans watched Sime win three sprint championships. That was the day AFTER the Friday prelims when he hit the world record in the 220 with a time of 20.1 seconds. Then, the following week, he matched the world mark in the 100 with a 9.3 in the Carolinas AAU meet at Raleigh. Within 15 days he had broken or tied world records in the 100, 220 and 220 low hurdles.
The Life magazine spread hit the streets (May 14), Sports Illustrated dispatched a writer to Durham for its famous “Superman In Spikes” takeout feature on the redheaded Blue Devil (June 4), and an SI cover featuring Sime with Morrow (July 2) coincided with the much anticipated summer trifecta of NCAA nationals, AAU nationals and Olympic Trials. Everyone, it seemed, now recognized Dave Sime’s name.
“It was a great time — and a very stressful time,” Sime acknowledged in the 2013 interview, “because I was working hard trying to keep up with my studies and traveling a lot. As far as the psychology of it goes, I did a lot of yoga stuff to keep me relaxed, and I had a great coach, Bob Chambers. He had a very mild way about him that was very good for me because I was always kind of hyper… He had a way to relax people and it was just what I needed.”
At a tuneup meet for the NCAAs in California, Sime became the first man ever to run the 220 in 20 seconds flat, another world record. Unfortunately he suffered a groin injury during a horseback riding incident on the trip west and aggravated it during his 220 qualifying heat at the NCAA meet (his first 220 on a curve). When the injury resurfaced at the Olympic Trials, Sime was unable to qualify for the U.S. contingent and Morrow went on to sweep the sprint golds in Melbourne.
Sime returned to baseball as a junior in 1957 and led the ACC in batting. He repeated as ACC track champion in the 100 and 220 dashes in ’57 and ’58, boosting his career total of ACC titles to 12, and after graduation accepted a scholarship to medical school at Duke. Still hungry for Olympic success, he qualified for the 1960 Summer Games in Rome and won a silver medal in the 100, edged in a photo finish by German Armin Hary. Gold finally appeared within his grasp as the anchor for the U.S. 4x100 relay team, when he stormed from behind to finish first in record time — only to find his unit disqualified because of an illegal baton pass in the first exchange.
Late in life, retired from a distinguished career as a Miami eye surgeon, Sime enjoyed spending part of every year in the North Carolina mountains. In his spare time he would counsel the sprinters at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, imparting the wisdom of a legend who had held world records in nine events and was considered the world’s fastest human in the mid-1950s. “It was one of the greatest periods of my life,” Sime said. “I had a roll going on.”