The likelihood of women's and men's world records in the same event being set within minutes of one another is about as high as having a solar eclipse and a simultaneous visit from Halley's Comet. But it happened at this year's National Sports Festival when Evelyn Ashford and Calvin Smith smashed the existing standards for the 100-meter dash.
The unprecedented back-to-back feats produced a remarkable conclusion to the 1983 competition, but there were many other spectacular performances in the 10 -day event that drew 2,600 athletes in 33 sports to Colorado Springs. Several American and festival records, as well as attendance marks, were set, while the 1984 Olympic ice hockey and field hockey squads plus numerous competitors for the 1983 Pan American Games were selected.
There had been talk of possible world records at the start of this fifth national festival, but chances no longer appeared good as the competition neared its conclusion. First, Carl Lewis, who has been approaching world marks in the long jump and the dashes, withdrew from the meet. Hopes were dashed again when a special women's 400-meter relay team, close on the heels of the world record held by the East Germans, missed by 1/100th of a second.
The overflow crowd of more than 15,500 at the Air Force Academy track had to wait only 90 minutes after that relay, however, until the two sprinters staged their one-in-a-million athletic milestone.
Ashford was clocked in 10.79 seconds, breaking the mark of 10.81 set by Marlies Gohr of East Germany earlier this year and becoming the first American woman to hold the 100-meter record in 11 years. Then just 16 minutes later Smith blazed down the same straightaway in 9.93 seconds, shattering Jim Hines's 9.95 standard which had stood since the 1968 Olympics as one of track and field's longest-held records.
The momentous occasion marked the first time Americans have simultaneously been ''the world's fastest man and woman'' since Hines and Wyomia Tyus reigned from 1968 to 1972. Tyus's mark was lowered in the latter year by Renate Stecher of East Germany, and the record had been held exclusively by runners from East or West Germany ever since.
Neither of the two new record-holders came to this year's festival to focus on individual races. Ashford, by far the more famous of the two due to her many international triumphs, participated in hopes of helping the women's 400-meter relay squad break that world record. Smith, still relatively unknown outside track circles, came for a similar bid by the men's 400-meter relay team - a strategy that changed when Lewis withdrew.
''The main goal for me was to get with the other girls and run a good relay, '' said Ashford. ''I feel we have a very good chance to be the world champions and go on to win the gold medal next year. Also, from last week's losing to Gohr (in the USA vs. East Germany meet in Los Angeles) I wanted to come here and get my confidence back and give Gohr something to think about. She's got something to think about now.''
Ashford, who has been chasing the individual record for years and who set the American mark on this track at 7,200 feet above sea level in 1981, seemed more at ease talking about the relay team. After her record was announced, she jogged a victory lap and collapsed near the finish line, the magnitude of the situation simply overcoming her.
''I'm stunned; I'm just stunned,'' she said 40 minutes after the race. ''That's all I can say. It hasn't hit me yet.''
The unexpectedness of the performance may have aided Ashford. The 1978 graduate of UCLA who lives in Venice, Calif., said she just wanted to get under 11 seconds and was relaxed about the individual event because she was concentrating on the relay.
''I just ran and I think that's probably why I ran well, because I wasn't thinking 'you gotta get a world record' or 'you gotta beat somebody.' I thought I ran about 11.1 to tell you the truth. When I crossed the finish line I thought 'Wow! That was nothing.' They say that's what happened; it's nothing.''
Ashford, who has run her two best times at high altitude, said all conditions were ideal.
''There was a .56 (m.p.h.) aiding wind. It's a pretty day; nice mountains; nice people.'' she said. ''And I ran through the finish because there was no tape there. Sometimes a tape makes you back off.''
Edwin Moses, who followed the world records with his 77th consecutive victory in the 400-meter hurdles, also cited the relaxed atmosphere and lack of pressure as important factors.
''It always happens when you least expect it,'' the 1976 Olympic gold medalist said. ''When you try to run a record it never happens.''
Smith, like Ashford, finished at least five meters ahead of his fellow competitors in the dash, an event that frequently needs an Accutrack camera to determine the winner.
With a flair for understatement Smith remarked: ''I am pleased that I came out of this race with a world record. My last couple of races I haven't run what I wanted to, and coming here and running a world record puts me back on track.''
Smith's previous best was 10.05 and he placed third at the TAC meet and second in the NCAAs this year. A native of Bolton, Miss., who ran for the University of Alabama with teammate Emmit King, Calvin was originally scheduled to run the 200 here and not the 100, but switched when King withdrew to go to the University Games in Canada.
''After Ashford ran the world record I felt that if everything went well, if I got a good start and worked my arms at the end the way that I've been training to do the last week, that I had a very good chance (to break the world record), '' Smith said. ''I feel that I have a good chance of running it again; lowering it, I don't know. I'm very surprised, overjoyed.''