Five years have passed since Frank Fredericks was coaxed off the soccer fields of his native Namibia and onto the track. In the short time since then, his sprinting has brought him to another continent, earned him national honors, records and an education and made a slight scratch in the surface of a deep talent. Should Fredericks ever escape the long arms of apartheid, the sky might be the limit.
No one knows how good Fredericks, still a relative novice on the track, can be. Coaches take in the smooth polished form, eye the lanky build, blink at the finishing strength, reconsider his relative inexperience . . . and gush. One coach uses words like incredible and phenomenal. Another calls him a future world record holder. Another compares him to - take a deep breath - Jesse Owens.At 21, Fredericks, a broad-shouldered 6-foot, 160-pound sophomore, already has run 10.25 for 100 meters and 20.57 for 200 meters, the latter a school record. In the NCAA indoor championships he set a collegiate record in the semifinals and finished second in the final. In the upcoming NCAA outdoor championships, set for Provo May 31-June 3, Fredericks has been tabbed by Track & Field News to finish second again in the 200.
And the short dashes are probably not even Fredericks' best races.
It wasn't until this this year that Fredericks reluctantly tried the open 400-meter race. He clocked 46.28. Counting one relay appearance last year, it was only the second time in his life he had run that distance. The third (and last) time came two weeks ago in Provo. Fredericks, running the anchor leg on BYU's 4 x 400 relay, got the baton some 30 meters behind Weber State's Dave Chowen. By the homestretch Fredericks was just four meters back, and, seeing he was unable to gain any more ground, eased off the throttle. His split: a remarkable 44.7
"I got it on film," says Weber coach Chick hislop. "It was amazing. If he had gone through with it he probably would've had 44.4. My kid ran 47.7, so it wasn't like he was running against a 50-flat person. The way (Fredericks) was coming on him was incredible. He's good in the 100, but he'd be even better in the 400."
BYU coach Willard Hirschi readily agrees: "He has the potential to be a world record holder in the 400. I don't know what it is, but he doesn't seem to tire at the end of the race. Most guys who don't train for it fade, but he doesn't. If he conditioned himself for it, there's no question in my mind he could run in the low 43s."
There's just one problem: "I don't like that race," says Fredericks. In fact, Fredericks seems to loathe the longer - and more painful - distance, and the easy-going Hirschi isn't one to force the issue. He has asked Fredericks to run the 400 on several occasions only to be politely turned down.
"I can't blame him," says Hirschi. "He runs a lot of races and we don't want to overwork him. He's a very mature individual, and I trust his judgment. He'll do it if we need the (team) points. He long jumped for us in the indoor conference meet and finished second without even practicing. He'll long jump again for us at the outdoor meet."
Fredericks' reluctance is perhaps more understandable considering his current success in the shorter dashes. He's unbeaten this season and, for that matter, has never even been tested. At last week's Robison Invitational he clocked 10.26 in the 100 and won easily - after stumbling at the start of the race.
"You know who he reminds me of," says another BYU coach, Craig Poole. "His style, the way he runs, reminds me of Jesse Owens."
"Frank Fredericks is something else," says the venerable Clarence Robison, who has coached at the national and international level for four decades. "He's just starting to develop. He doesn't have a lot of meets behind him like a lot of these guys. He could be one of the best in the world."
But at the moment, Fredericks is not allowed even to compete against the world. Until recently, Namibia, tucked away on the southwest corner of the African continent, has been the claim of South Africa, which means it has been banned from international sport for the latter's apartheid policies. It is one of sport's bitter ironies that the ban applies to South African whites and blacks, which is why Fredericks, who is black, was relegated to watching the Olympics on TV last summer.
Things could be different next time around. After waging a guerilla war for more than two decades against the South African military to end 74 years of South African rule, Namibia agreed to a cease fire last month and independence is imminent.
"I have been waiting for this day all my life," says Fredericks.
Among other things, Namibia's independence would allow Fredericks to compete internationally, possibly in time for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
By then he should have the experience and background for an Olympic effort. Fredericks, raised in the town of Windhoek, didn't find his way to a track until he was 16-years-old. He was strictly a soccer player until one day the high school track coach, needing a fourth relay runner, asked Fredericks to join the team. He was given the anchor leg with the promise that "we'll give you a big lead, so it will be easy for you." As fate would have it, Fredericks was in third place when he got the baton - but first at the finish line.
By the end of the year he was the national prep black champion. In the final meet - and only the final meet - blacks and whites are allowed to compete against each other in a national championship meet. Fredericks finished second in the dashes in that meet. He won both the black and mixed titles the next two years and, a year after graduation, set national records in the 100 and 200. Namibia's track seasons consist of only a handful of meets annually, and yet Fredericks had already run 20.58, as a teen-ager.
Fredericks was working computers for the Rossing Uranium Mine at the time, and, on the side, weighing his future and training. Pat Shane, a BYU distance coach who was recruiting in South Africa for the Cougars' women's team, couldn't help but notice Fredericks in a 200-meter race and made a quick call to Hirschi.
"Frank didn't even win the race," recalls Shane. "But it was just the way he ran, the way he moved, and he was young."
Fredericks came to the U.S. - and BYU got a bargain. Fredericks' employer, fearing that he might never return home, offered to pay his travel and school expenses if he agreed to return for a minimum of three years employment.
"The bottom line is that the company likes him so much that they want him back," says Shane. "He's one of the bright young people of their country."
Indeed, Fredericks speaks four-plus languages - English, Afrikaans, Nama, Herero and some German - and carries a B-plus average in computer science. He carries a full class load, with heavyweight subjects such as calculus, math, physics and computer science.
"I'm here for a reason; I'm here to continue my education," says Fredericks, who has been known to skip team workouts to study.
"He's not the most gung-ho athlete in the world," says Hirschi without a hint of complaint. "Studies are more important to him. At first, I think he didn't look at this like he was going to run a long time. But things are changing in his country, and of course as he's gotten better he sees he can run with the best, and I think he's taking it more seriously."
It is ironic that Fredericks, who grew up in a black world dominated by whites, who was unable to vote and was treated as a second-class citizen, would choose to attend BYU, a predominantly white university in a predominantly white state. But Fredericks says simply, "I have never felt hatred toward whites. I played with them when I was growing up."
It's difficult to imagine that Fredericks, a soft-spoken affable sort with a ready sense of humor, would not fit in comfortably anywhere. "He's what you'd like your son to be like," says Hirschi.
"He's an unusual kid," says Robison. "He has all that talent, but there isn't any conceit in him. He's quiet and friendly, he's a gentleman. There isn't anyone on the team who doesn't like him."
When and if Namibia's independence comes to pass, Fredericks will be a worthy ambassador in international sport. In the meantime, he runs and studies and hopes for such a day, with an eye toward Barcelona.