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Joaquim Cruz's Ascendancy From the Brazilian Slums to Superstar Runner Has Not Been Easy One; Still, He's Found the Eugene Life Style Very Much to His Liking as He Settles Into This Post-Olympic Year : BORN TO RUN

May 13, 1985|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

EUGENE, Ore. — Joaquim Cruz's long, sinewy legs, which carried him out of a Brazilian slum and to a gold medal in the Olympic 800-meter race last summer, were being pounded and manipulated by a therapist the way one would tenderize a steak.

Occasionally, when the therapist reached a sensitive spot near the hamstring, Cruz winced and tightened his muscles. It was obvious that, on this day, Cruz wasn't enjoying his hour-long massage.

But if there was any soreness at all in Cruz's legs, surely it was being relieved by his personal version of Magic Fingers.

"Naw, I still feel tight," Cruz said, talking softly so that neither his coach nor therapist would hear. "It's just another part of my training."

The daily condition of Joaquim Cruz's legs is vitally important, so every precaution is taken. His long, graceful stride, which belies the speed and strength those legs possess, has helped Cruz become the world's best 800-meter runner and a man who could potentially dominate the middle distances for years.

Just 22 and three years removed from his native Brazil, Cruz already has accomplished more than many world-class runners have in their careers.

In the last year, Cruz's progress has been startling. In the spring of 1984, won both the 800- and 1,500-meter races at the NCAA meet. Then in the Olympics, he beat an exceptionally strong 800-meter field in Olympic-record time.

His domination continued on the European circuit late last summer when he ran under 1 minute 43 seconds three times, including once in a blistering 1:41.77 in Cologne, West Germany. That time was just .04 of a second off Sebastian Coe's world record.

It was after his amazing string of victories in Europe that people in his adopted home of Eugene and elsewhere finally learned how to properly pronounce his first name. In Brazil,

the language is Portuguese, not Spanish as in the rest of South America, so Joaquim is Joe-AKEEM, not Wah-KEEM. In any event, he can simply be called the best at his distance.

The scary part, at least for middle-distance runners from Great Britain to Kenya, is that Luiz de Oliveira, Cruz's coach and confidante, believes that Cruz hasn't reached his peak. And now that Cruz has turned aside nearly every challenge in the 800, he is starting to concentrate more on longer distances. Cruz will run against Americans Steve Scott and Sydney Maree in the mile at Saturday's Pepsi Invitational at UCLA.

Is it any wonder, then, that the 27-year-old Coe walked up to fellow Briton Steve Ovett after the Olympic 800 and said: "Aren't we too old to be playing with fire?" Later, Coe reportedly told friends that he would no longer run major 800s. "This is not fair," he said. "I'm being mugged by a teen-ager."

Cruz, a junior at the University of Oregon, is merely a baby in the world of big-time middle-distance running. And although the runner may not be at his athletic peak, the man has matured lots since leaving Brazil at 18 to seek fame, a minor fortune and an education in the United States.

"Joaquim has become a different, better person," de Oliveira said.

This is more than just another story about a fast and precocious athlete going for the gold. It is about an impressionable Brazilian from an impoverished environment and a young coach-father figure united by a common dream of a better life.

For all the trappings of track and field success that have become an accepted part of Cruz's life, though--the sudden fame in his home country and recognition elsewhere, the lucrative shoe contract with Nike and healthy appearance fees, the new BMW 318i in the parking lot--he never forgets what it was like growing up poor in Brazil.

There are times, if the truth is known, when Cruz doesn't want to think about the past and certainly doesn't feel like talking about it to strangers. But it is there with every breath he takes, every long stride he makes on the track.

Stretched out on a training table at Athletics West late one typically rainy Eugene afternoon, Cruz addressed an interviewer directly.

"I said to Luiz that I hope (the reporter) doesn't ask anything about my past because I'm tired of talking about it," Cruz said, smiling and without aggravation.

Make no mistake, Cruz is proud of his heritage and he returns to Brazil at least twice a year to visit friends and family. He'll tell you all of that after some gentle coercing. Besides, Cruz knows that the only way for an outsider to adequately appreciate his success story is to review where he came from.

By most definitions, Cruz grew up poor in Taguatinga, a city of 300,000 in central Brazil near Brasilia, the capital. The area in which the Cruz family lived was called a favela , which has been described as a hopeless slum. But Cruz earnestly maintains that the situation wasn't that bleak at his home.

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