Berger set to strive for Nehemiah standard

Maryland hurdler embraces comparison to former NCAA titlist

May 25, 2007|By Heather A. Dinich | Heather A. Dinich,Sun reporter

College Park -- As Maryland junior Dominic Berger's feet touched the ground after the final hurdle last month at the Atlantic Coast Conference track and field championships, the school's most accomplished track athlete and one of the world's fastest hurdlers was waiting for him, eager to present Berger with the gold medal.

It was only fitting that former Terp Renaldo Nehemiah was there to congratulate Berger for his league title in the 110-meter hurdles, which he won in 13.54 seconds.

Nehemiah, the first man to run the 110-meter hurdles in under 13 seconds, is the only athlete in school history who has run the event faster than Berger, yet those within the program are hesitant to compare the two.

"What we've tried to do is create his own identity," coach Andrew Valmon said. "It's really difficult to be compared to Renaldo."

Yet that is the standard that has been set at Maryland, and it's one that Berger aspires to as he prepares for the NCAA East Regional meet today and tomorrow at the University of Florida. Only the top five finishers in each event qualify for the national meet June 6-9 in Sacramento, Calif.

"He [Nehemiah] was looked at as one of the greatest hurdlers of all time, before the heyday of fast tracks and technical shoes, in the days of raw speed and skill ... he was the king," said Berger, who holds the school indoor 60-meter hurdles record (7.69 seconds).

"I'm trying to get as close to him as possible. He's still pretty far away, but I'm trying to strive to get as close to his level as I can."

Berger, an Olympic hopeful, is ranked fourth in the nation in the 110-meter hurdles with a time of 13.54 - an indication he is likely to qualify for the national meet. Berger was the NCAA runner-up last year with a time of 13.49.

Although Berger has yet to win an individual national title, he is training under former Maryland coach Frank Costello, who coached Nehemiah to three national championships in 1978 and 1979 and is now a volunteer assistant coach.

Nehemiah was a phenom out of high school who was ahead of his time, Costello said, whereas Berger is a "later bloomer" whose best times are still ahead of him.

"If someone says, `Well, is he going to be another Nehemiah?' it's difficult to say," Costello said. "That's asking a lot. ... He's a little [more of a] later bloomer than Nehemiah was. If he improves his overall speed, yes.

"Right now he is as good a hurdler on top of a hurdle - he's as good as [Nehemiah] was. But [Nehemiah] was also a world-class sprinter. I think that's where we have to work a little bit more on Berger."

Berger's strength now, Costello said, is his form. An adjustment in the motion of his lead arm gave Berger a bit of a boost over the 42-inch high obstacles, but the perfect technique, he said, is "almost unattainable."

Berger said: "It takes speed, power and finesse - a lot of things you normally wouldn't put together. It's like controlled chaos going over the hurdles, being able to control your raw speed and having perfect technique over each hurdle."

Like Nehemiah, who played three years with the San Francisco 49ers as a wide receiver, Berger also was a talented football player. He played cornerback and wide receiver on DeMatha's Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship teams in 2003 and 2004.

"I knew I could go play football and go through the motions, or do something I really love and enjoy, which is track," said Berger, a native of Mitchellville. "Track was where my heart was and still is. I have no regrets to this day."

In the ACC final, Berger trailed Drew Brunson of Florida State through the eighth of 10 hurdles, but edged Brunson at the final hurdle and through the line.

"That's one of the reasons we put no limitations on him," Valmon said. "He can do anything. He's shown us he can rise to the occasion."

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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