While many people consider the number 13 to be unlucky, in this case, it was a pretty fortuitous number for one UMD track star…
Thirteen stands for the 13-second barrier broken by Renaldo “Skeets” Nehemiah in the 110 meter hurdles, setting a world record in 1981.
Widely considered the greatest high hurdler in the world during his collegiate years (1977-1981), Nehemiah broke numerous records in both indoor and outdoor hurdling events.
Skeets was a star even before arriving at UMD, setting New Jersey State high school records in hurdles, long jump, and short-distance running events. During his freshman year at Maryland, he broke the 60 yard high hurdles world record at the Millrose Games in New York (7.07 seconds). Sophomore year, he would break his own record in the 60 yard event (7.04) on home turf in Cole Field House.
Nehemiah’s success grew in 1979. He set two world records in two weeks for the 110 meter hurdles, first a 13.16 second record at the Jenner Invitational in California, then a 13.00 race at the UCLA Invitation. He broke seven indoor hurdles records during the season. This set him up for international wins over the summer, including a gold medal at the 1979 Pan-American Games and a gold at the IAAF World Cup.
In 1980, Nehemiah’s best opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal vanished when the U.S. boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow. He won the 110 meter hurdles event at the U.S. Olympic Trials with a time well above his standing world record. Without the promise of Olympic competition, however, the trials felt like an ordinary track meet.
Then came the most significant world record of his track career.
In August of 1981 after graduating from the University of Maryland, Nehemiah participated in Weltklasse Zurich, an annual invitation-only international track and field event for world-class athletes. Competing in the 110 meter hurdles against his college rival, Greg Foster of UCLA, Nehemiah held off the rest of the field and bested his own world record of 13.00 seconds with a time of 12.93 — becoming the first hurdler to run the event at a sub-13 second pace.
[This record lasted for eight years, until another American hurdler – two-time gold medalist Roger Kingdom – beat Nehemiah’s time at the Weltklasse Zurich meet in 1989. The current world record for the 110 meter hurdles is 12.80 seconds, set by Aries Merritt (the 2012 Olympics gold medalist) in Brussels on September 7, 2012.]
After such a highly-decorated track career, Nehemiah took on a new athletic challenge. He joined the San Francisco 49ers and played three years of football as a wide receiver. Skeets returned to track in 1985 and was again ranked among the top 10 hurdlers in the world. Only 8 people have topped Nehemiah’s sub-13-second 110 meter hurdle record since he set the mark in 1981. We’re certainly proud to call him a Terp!
This post is part of our new series on Terrapin Tales called UMD123! Similar to our “ABC’s of UMD” series last semester, posts in this series will take a look at the university’s history “by the numbers.” New posts will come out twice a month, on Wednesdays, throughout the semester; search “UMD123” or check out Twitter #UMD123 to see the rest. If you want to learn more about campus history, you can also visit our encyclopedia University of Maryland A to Z: MAC to Millennium for more UMD facts.