On April 8, 1974, Henry (Hank) Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. For a twelve-year-old baseball junkie, watching this event on television was the highlight of a lifetime — even bigger than watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon — after all, I was just a kid. Exactly four years later, another athlete named Henry entered my consciousness. On April 8, 1978, while running for Washington State University’s men’s track team, Henry Rono broke the world record in the 5,000 meters. In my hometown of Spokane, WA, which is 80 miles from WSU’s Pullman campus, this was exciting news. Henry Rono had become a local hero. And then, sadly, in a few short years he had completely fallen from grace. Yet, some 29 years after setting the aforementioned world record, personal redemption and triumph are at hand for Henry Rono.
Is it fair to mention Henry Rono in the same breath as Hank Aaron? In many respects, the answer is "yes." Both competed before steroids, human growth hormone, blood doping, and other unethical practices infected their respective sports. Hence, both Henrys took their natural talents to the outer limits of athletic excellence.
Although it is difficult to compare a distance runner to the man who hit 755 home runs (the ethical way), Henry Rono’s list of athletic accomplishments is nothing short of astonishing:
- Henry Rono is one of three men in history to win the NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championship three times; doing so in 1976, 1977, and 1979.
- 1977 NCAA indoor champion in the 3,000 meters
- 1978 NCAA steeplechase champion
- 1978 winner of gold medals in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and the 5,000 meters at the Commonwealth Games
- 1978 winner of gold medals in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and the 10,000 meters at the All-Africa Games
- During a span of 81 days, in 1978, Henry Rono set an astounding four world records:
- April 8, 1978: In Berkeley, CA, Rono runs the 5,000 meters in 13:08.4. This shaves fully 4.5 seconds off of the previous world record.
- May 13, 1978: In Seattle, WA, Rono runs the 3,000-meter steeplechase in 8:05.4 beating the world record by 2.6 seconds.
- June 11, 1978: In Vienna, Austria, Rono shatters the 10,000 meters world record by 8.1 seconds. His time was 27:22.5.
- June 27, 1978: In Oslo, Norway, Rono breaks the 3,000 meters world record by a full three seconds. His time was 7:32.1.
- 1979 NCAA steeplechase champion
- September 13, 1981: In Oslo, Norway, Henry Rono breaks the world record again in the 5,000 meters. His time was 13:06.2. He beats his own world record by 2.2 seconds.
As George Malley, a former American record holder in the steeplechase, stated: "Over the years we’ve all heard many athletes declare themselves to be u2018artists.’ Rono never claimed anything; he just ran. But if ever there was a u2018performance artist’ in our sport, it was Rono." Additionally, as Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union Tribune put it: "Rono did it running alone out front, without challengers to push him, without pace-setting rabbits."
As Rono’s gaudy rsum took just a few years to build, Hank Aaron’s impressive rsum was built over 23 baseball seasons which includes most lifetime runs batted in (2297), most years with 30 or more home runs (15), 1477 extra-base hits, 6856 total bases, and most career home runs (755). Hank Aaron’s high level of consistency and durability is unparalleled.
Henry Rono’s final world record most certainly came the hard way. This world-class athlete had become an alcoholic as he struggled to handle his fame. In his own words: "I did well. I just didn’t know how to manage it. Maybe it was an African guy coming to the Western world for the first time — it’s hard to handle that life." In 1981, while spending time in Europe, Rono had difficulty entering races. Track officials saw an out-of-shape athlete and Henry had to plead his way into the competitions. Gradually, Rono raced himself back into shape. On September 12, 1981, he went on an all-night bender in Oslo, Norway. When he woke up on the morning of September 13th, Henry ran for an hour to sweat out the alcohol. He went back to the hotel, ate lunch and took a nap. That evening, he ran the 5,000 meters and broke the world record — the one he had set in 1978. No human growth hormone, no steroids, no blood doping; just pure talent, guts, determination, and some residual alcohol.
By 1984, Henry Rono was in a tailspin. Any opportunities to participate in the Olympics had come and gone. Kenya, regrettably, had boycotted the 1976 and the 1980 Olympics. Accordingly, while Henry was in his prime, he was denied the world-stage he so richly deserved. Yet none of this mattered much as compared to getting that next drink. And then, for the better part of two decades, Henry Rono — the Nandi tribesman from Kiptaragon village in Kenya’s Rift Valley — had become a lost soul in America.
Oh, how the mighty had fallen. Rono had gone from the world’s highest-paid track athlete to little more than a drifter. From 1986 to 1996 Henry moved from city to city. He had been in and out of a dozen rehab centers. He lived in homeless shelters in Washington, D.C. and Salt Lake City. Odd jobs were the order of the day — such as parking cars in Portland, OR and working as a skycap at the Albuquerque airport. Heck, he even pleaded for a job as a janitor at Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, OR. His former sponsor turned him away. Talk about adding insult to injury.
In complete contrast, after retiring as a baseball player, Hank Aaron moved into the Atlanta Braves’ front office as an executive vice-president. There he became an advocate for minority hiring in baseball. He was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1982. His autobiography, I Had a Hammer, was published in 1990. In 1999, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of breaking Ruth’s record, Major League Baseball announced the Hank Aaron Award — given annually to the best overall hitter in each league. He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. To be sure, Henry Aaron is a role model.
Eleven years ago, in 1996, Henry Rono did settle in Albuquerque, NM. Better yet, for the past five years, he has been sober. This man, who did earn his bachelor’s degree from Washington State University, is now a teacher in Albuquerque’s Truman Middle School. Not surprisingly, he is also coaching track.
At age 55, Henry Rono is running competitively once again. One of his objectives is to break the world record, in the mile, for the 55—59 age group. The current record stands at 4:40.4. Another objective is to compete in the World Masters’ Championships, in Italy, this coming September. Rono’s sixth-place finish (for his age group), in Spokane’s 12k Lilac Bloomsday Run, shows that Rono is making great progress toward competing at the upper echelon of his age category. Notably, Bloomsday draws world-class runners from around the globe while also serving as a fun-run for the less serious — 50,000 participated in the 2007 race.
Today, just as Hank Aaron does, Henry Rono stands before the world as a role model. As Rono stated in a recent interview: "I want to teach the people that you can come back from the streets, and being homeless, and recover your life." Henry Rono does not duck from the tough questions reporters ask about his lost years…nor does he run from his past. Instead, he is running towards his future and setting a fine example not only for aspiring distance runners, but for anyone struggling with chemical dependency.
Presently, Hank Aaron is being hounded by the question as to whether or not he will attend the game in which Barry Bonds breaks his all-time home run record. Aaron has no intention of attending that game. Instead, Aaron implied that he’d rather go golfing than watch Bonds hit that 756th home run. Some accuse Hammerin’ Hank of running away from the issues surrounding Bonds. To the contrary, attending the game would be tantamount to giving a personal stamp of approval regarding Bonds’ unethical and dishonest approach to baseball. Aaron has taken a position of great principle and sends a strong message to all athletes and sports fans alike — the ends do not justify the means.
When Barry Bonds surpasses Hank Aaron’s home run record, I will harken back to the magical dates of April 8, 1974 and April 8, 1978. In my mind’s eye I will first see Henry Aaron’s home run trot, around the base paths, as he breaks Babe Ruth’s most famous record…and then I will see Henry Rono, running ferociously, as he begins his assault on track & field’s record books. Two men, of great natural ability and character, who took very different paths to becoming role models. When Bonds hits number 756, my response will simply be: "Go, Henry, go!"