Doug Robinson: The unraveling of a rare talent

Published: Saturday, April 13 2013 8:45 p.m. MDT

Tim Danielson is one of the greatest high school athletes ever signed by BYU, although you've probably never heard of him.

In 1966, he became only the second high school miler ever to run a sub four-minute mile, just two years after Jim Ryun became the first to do it. Danielson clocked 3:59.4, the exact time that Roger Bannister achieved in 1954 to become the first man to break four minutes — a feat considered tantamount to landing on the moon. Decades later, Danielson remains one of only five prep milers who have managed to break four minutes — the others: Marty Liquori in 1967, Alan Webb in 2001 and Luke Verzbicas in 2011, 45 years to the day after Danielson's run.

Virtually every university in the country pursued Danielson. A non-Mormon, he chose BYU, where he could train with coach Sherald James at high altitude, which is advantageous for endurance athletes. This was when miling and track enjoyed a certain popularity, and Danielson's feats created a buzz.

But the story pretty much ended there.

Danielson left BYU following his freshman season and, after a few stops and restarts, faded from the scene. It is tempting to wonder what would have happened if he had remained at BYU. Perhaps he would have fulfilled his potential under the gentle and experienced guidance of James, who trained other runners to prominence. Perhaps — and this might be a stretch — if he had experienced such fulfillment, he wouldn't have struggled with alcohol and marriage, and maybe the rest of his life would've been much different.

Who knows, maybe he wouldn't be sitting in a California jail, accused of murder.

In June 2011, Danielson was charged with murdering his third wife, whom he had divorced. He pleaded not guilty and is waiting for his trial in June.

Danielson's sad story was recently chronicled by the New York Times. As Times reporter Jere Longman wrote, "By all accounts, Danielson had been gentle, humble, quiet, even-tempered, law abiding … But his life had grown complicated, according to court records and interviews with his lawyer, friends, co-workers, neighbors and relatives. They described Danielson, now 65, as professionally dutiful and socially awkward, a steady and reliable engineer, but also a shy man who struggled with alcohol and relationships, married three times and had a long-term companionship and a son with a woman who had been his pen pal when she was in prison."

On the track, Danielson was a rare talent, blessed with the gifts of speed endurance and a fanatical drive to succeed. James will tell you that drive was part of his undoing.

In 1965, Danielson, a student at Chula Vista High in San Diego, won the California state mile title in 4:08.0. A year later he won the title again, in 4:07.0 (a race you can watch on YouTube). According to the Times, Danielson clocked 4:06.2 in a sectional race to set a personal record. He was winning races against high school competition by almost a full straightaway of the track. To produce faster times, he needed to race against world-class competition. A month after graduating from high school, he joined a race of world-class runners in San Diego. Jim Grelle, a 1,500-meter finalist in the1960 Olympic Games, led the way, and Danielson, in fourth place, hit the tape in 3:59.4.

By then, the recruiting war was underway. Willard Hirschi, an assistant coach at BYU, was dispatched to California to woo Danielson. He was at the track when Danielson won his second California state championship.

"USC had him all sewed up," says Hirschi. "When the meet was over, Danielson left the field with the USC coach, Ken Matsuda. I thought, 'We don't have a chance.' "

If that were the case, Danielson changed his mind after flying to Provo for an official campus visit.

"It wasn't a hard recruit," recalls James. "He fell in love with the mountains and the campus. We took him along the Provo River and Hobble Creek and Utah Lake. He loved what he saw. And we explained the benefits of altitude training and running in the mountains."

BYU coaches decided to redshirt Danielson that season to enable him, under the NCAA rules of the day, to be eligible to compete in the NCAA championships as a senior. During his first collegiate season, Danielson was able to compete in a couple of meets independently and ran 4:03 in an indoor mile race and 8:44.4 in an outdoor two-mile race, marks that are all the more impressive when the altitude is considered. That should have demonstrated to Danielson that his training program was on the right path, but it wasn't enough.

"He had a tremendous capacity to work hard," says James. "We'd run 12 to 14 quarters (in a training session) and he would want to do more. I remember a couple of times we'd go on a six- or seven-mile run, and he'd come back and want to do 10 quarters at 60 seconds on the track."

His high school workouts were high-volume, intense affairs that defied the traditional, more judicious training philosophy of following speed days with an easier, less intense recovery day, which enabled the body to recover. The Times reported, "In high school, he trained twice a day, sometimes even three times. (Danielson) recalled his weekly speed work during the track season: Monday, eight repeats of 440 yards; Tuesday, 20x220 yards (in 24 seconds); Wednesday, 40x110 yards; Thursday, a warm-up and strides; Friday, meet day; Saturday and Sunday, a 15-mile run."

At BYU, James urged a more prudent approach. "I tried to talk to him," says James. "I'd tell him, 'Look, you're running at altitude. You can do a few less up here and it will be the equivalent of a few more at sea level.' He struggled with that. But more than anything else, when you're that good I guess you think you're going to keep improving and improving and improving, and he would have — there's no question in my mind that he would have — but he was too impatient. An individual can be so motivated that he has the ability to destroy himself."

While Danielson was unhappy about his performances and training, he was also struggling with another challenge.

"He was lovesick," says James.

Danielson's high school sweetheart remained in California when he left for Provo. According to James, she visited Danielson in Provo for a week. When she returned home, says James, "Tim couldn't quite handle being away from her."

As James and Hirschi recalled, Danielson never struggled with life at the Mormon Church-owned school.

"There was no problem with being accepted," says James. "There wasn't a religious problem. He never complained about those (required religion) classes. And he never had a drinking problem at BYU. I never knew of one drinking episode."

Says Hirschi, "I recruited him, so I spent a lot of time with him. It was always my impression that he was an exceptional young man. There was nothing going on here as far as untoward behavior is concerned. He was just a good kid."

At the end of his freshman season, though, Danielson left for California — never to return.

"He was a real nice kid; he really was," says James. "But he just had a hard time handling that love syndrome. We tried everything we could to talk him out of leaving."

Says Hirschi, "In the long run, redshirting him was a bad idea. He was training all the time, but not racing. It's a long, cold spring. I suppose if he had competed as a freshman, he might have stayed with us."

A couple of months after leaving BYU — and still fit largely from the training he had done in Provo — he entered what would become a historic mile race in Bakersfield, Calif., competing head to head with Ryun and the latest high school mile phenom, Liquori. The 20-year-old Ryun clocked 3:51.1 — a world record that would last eight years. Liquori came home in seventh in 3:59.8 to become the third member of the prep sub-four club. Danielson was eighth in 4:00.6.

Of the five prep athletes who have broken the four–minute barrier, Ryun, Liquori and Webb went on to make Olympic teams and win national championships. The 20-year-old Verzbicas left the University of Oregon in the fall of his freshman year to pursue a professional triathlon career. Danielson never would break four minutes again, never run in the Olympics and never win a national title.

Danielson claimed his first victory at the elite level in an indoor mile race in Los Angeles in 1968, but his running career was nonetheless making a slow fade. Four months after marrying his girlfriend, Danielson became a father. He had to support a family and he was studying engineering at San Diego State. He made a futile attempt to qualify for the 1968 Olympic Games at 5,000 meters. A year later, Danielson, Liquori and Ryun competed in the mile at the NCAA championships. Danielson failed to make the final.

Ask BYU coaches about all this and they come straight to the point: "If he had stayed at BYU, he would have been fantastic," says Hirschi. "He would have been running under four minutes all the time. Coach James was doing a good job of training runners in those days. I don't think there was any limit as to how quick (Danielson) might have run. He had all the makings of a great one. If he had stuck around, he would've been one of the all-time greats. But of course that's all speculation."

Says James, "If he had stayed at BYU, and if he would've been a little patient with himself — by that I mean, not overdo his training and make time for rest — he would've gone down as one of the great ones. He would have been in the same category as Jim Ryun."

Perhaps the excessive training caught up with Danielson. His San Diego State coach, Tony Sucec, told the Times that Danielson was unable to train as hard and consistently as he once did.

Danielson began a career as a chemical engineer. He worked for an aviation company and was considered, according to the Times, an excellent, well-liked, even-tempered employee. But his personal life was a mess. He went through three marriages (he had two sons, 27 years apart), and he suffered from alcoholism that led to erratic behavior. His first wife claims that Danielson's running career contributed to their divorce.

He continued to run, but he also become a heavy smoker and took up drinking after the first divorce, according to family members. A decade ago, he managed to get sober and attended AA meetings, but as Danielson's third marriage fell apart, so did Danielson. He was despondent when his latest ex-wife began seeing another man, according to the Times. Depressed and drinking heavily again, he reportedly tried to take his own life. Instead, according to charges, he took someone else's life. He is accused of shooting his ex-wife in the home they shared after the divorce.

Last summer, Danielson wrote a letter to a former San Diego State teammate in which he addressed this tragic turn of events.

"I'm not sure when it will end or how it will end," he wrote, according to the Times. "One thing is certain is that I had a serious mental breakdown. It was not part of who I am. I'm still in shock after a year. Some things have surfaced which help explain my meltdown. … I had a good life before this terrible thing happened. No one could have ever guessed this outcome, me the most."

email: drob@desnews.com

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