The reason for this contrast is obvious. While the 100 and 200 are basically all-out sprints, no competitor can push as hard as possible for a full 400 meters. So the 400-meter run requires a combination of endurance and flat-out sprinter’s speed.
At the 1996 Olympics, both American Michael Johnson and Marie-José Pérec of France accomplished the 200-400 double. But the first competitor to perform this feat was American Valerie Brisco-Hooks in 1984.
Valerie Brisco was married to pro football player Alvin Hooks in 1981 and gave birth to a baby in 1982. After competing at 130 pounds in college, she reportedly rose to almost 200 pounds due to 18 months of inactivity surrounding her pregnancy until her husband and her coach, Bobby Kersee, convinced her to begin training in 1983.
A slimmed-down and revitalized Brisco-Hooks seemed to come out of nowhere to win the U. S. Indoor 200-meter championship and the Olympic Trials 400-meter title in 1984. She also placed second in the 200 at the Olympic Trials, behind Chandra Cheeseborough. Prior to the Los Angeles Olympics, Kersee decided that Brisco-Hooks would attempt the 200-400 double.
“To me, running both in the same meet was no big deal,” Brisco-Hooks told the Chicago Tribune in 1996. “I had done it starting as a high school junior and my college coach trained all sprinters to run the 400 and then let them do the 100 and 200.”
Two days later, Brisco-Hooks won a pair of 200-meter heats. On Aug. 9 she won her semifinal then, began the final in Lane 7 later that day. She ran with the leaders most of the way, then surged down the stretch, pulling away from Florence Griffith to win in 21.81 seconds. Her time again set new U.S. and Olympic records.
“My entire body was killing me when it was over,” Brisco-Hooks said in 1996, “but it is 99 percent mental and 1 percent physical while you are doing it.”
Brisco-Hooks capped off her Olympic experience by winning a third gold medal, as part of the American 4 x 400-meter relay team, along with Lillie Leatherwood, Sherri Howard and Cheeseborough. The quartet set a new American record of 3:18.28.
As outstanding as Brisco-Hooks’ accomplishment was, it’s fair to speculate about how she would’ve done if the Soviet bloc had not boycotted the 1984 Olympics. Brisco-Hooks’ 400-meter time was fourth fastest in the world in 1984. East Germany's Marita Koch ran 48.26 in July, then 48.16 later in August. Tatana Kocembova of Czechoslovakia ran 48.73 in August. What would’ve happened if all three raced together on the same track, of course, is impossible to know for certain. Brisco-Hooks’ time in the 200 was third in the world in 1984. However, Brisco-Hooks ran into a 0.1 meters-per-second headwind at the Olympics. Koch ran 21.71 in July, but enjoyed an 0.3 mps tailwind. Another East German, Marlies Gohr, ran 21.74 in June with a 0.4 mps tailwind.
Brisco-Hooks went on to set a world indoor 400-meter record of 52.99 in 1985. She earned an Olympic silver medal in the 4 x 400-meter relay in 1988, then retired from track and field shortly thereafter.