Bob Dean knows elegance in a runner when he sees it, and he saw it in Bob Wheeler.
"He had something extra, the strong, fluid stride," said Dean, the athletic director and track coach at Dulaney High. "It was obvious. I came to learn that Bobby was a fiery competitor, too, and that he loved to work."
Dean's first impression of Wheeler, as a Dulaney sophomore, proved accurate. Wheeler became one of the state's dominant runners, negotiating a mile in 4:06.6, and then, as a Duke freshman, he eclipsed the NCAA indoor 1,000-yard record.
A year later, Wheeler was in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, running the 1,500 meters.
He was unseasoned as an international runner then, at 20. He had competed in only a half-dozen events outside the United States and was, in his words, "raw in the tactical part of running." In that respect, most runners peak between 25 and 30.
Still, Wheeler was one of only a few U.S. runners to record a personal best in the Olympics with his 3:40.0 in the 1,500. He was eliminated in the semifinals, however, winding up with the 11th best time in the event.
"It was a fantastic experience," Wheeler said from his home in San Diego. "It's a true amateur's dream to try to become one of the best in the world. To come out of nowhere and make the U.S. team was a big boost for me."
To watch their son, Wheeler's parents drove from Switzerland to Munich just as Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village and seized and killed members of the Israeli team.
"I met my parents outside the village and we saw a caravan of [West German] armored vehicles going into an underground garage," Wheeler said. "We knew then we had a problem."
Wheeler took a leave of absence from Duke after the Olympics and raced in Europe. In Denmark, he not only lowered his personal best for the 1,500 to 3:38, but beat the fourth-place Olympic finisher, Kenya's Michael Boit.
"No regrets," Wheeler said. "I tasted it."
In the spring of 1973, his junior year at Duke, Wheeler was injured. He underwent surgery twice, for a bone spur and a damaged tendon, which in effect ended his competitive racing career.
Wheeler has lived in California since 1974. At one point he was an owner of a chain of 60 shoe outlets, but sold his share in 1985 and launched Dover Pro Inc., a wholesale athletic shoe and apparel business.
Next month Wheeler will move his family and business to Raleigh, N.C. It's a much better place to raise two daughters, he thinks.