The headline -- albeit in tiny type, buried inside the newspaper -- said it all:
"Virginia tap dancer seeks Guinness record spot."
Finally, it had arrived. The story we'd been waiting for. The dramatic, uplifting, all-American story of the quest for a record. The successor to last summer's riveting McGwire-Sosa saga.
A Charlottesville-area woman tap-danced for almost nine hours Saturday, covering 20 miles and apparently earning herself a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Angell Husted, a 51-year-old fitness instructor, danced across the finish line at 5: 15 p.m. yesterday, breaking the record. ... She finished her 348 laps after miles of heel-toe and toe-heel movements sprinkled in with skips and shuffles.
OK. So it's not the single-season home run record. But it's a record story all the same, complete with heart-stopping moments, larger-than-life characters and historic feats of strength and endurance. More important, it is the story of the people who paved the way -- the Babe Ruths and Roger Marises of long-distance tap. People such as David Meenan of Red Bank, N.J., who, on June 30, 1996, tapped 23.2 miles* in the rain (not singing) to raise money for a friend with leukemia. And
Beth Obermeyer, who established her legend back in July 1983 by tapping 4.1 miles in 90-degree heat -- while dressed as a giant apple. And Laurie Churchwell, who in 1996 tapped 17.9 miles over icy sidewalks on the campus of Howard College in Big Spring, Texas.
"I didn't do it to be immortal, or to hold the record forever," a humble Churchwell says. "I did it for my children and my dance students, to show them that whatever you set your mind to, you can do it."
Who are these legends? What drove them to these awesome distances? In the winter of 1997, when Angell Husted first dreamed of tapping farther than any woman in the world had tapped before, she had no time for such questions. There was money to be raised, music to be selected, a costume to be made, a venue to find.
There was also this minor issue.
She didn't know how to tap dance.
But that's getting ahead of things. First, some history.
As recently as the early 1980s, the Guinness Book of World Records made no mention of long-distance tap dancing. But in 1983, a Minnesota tap teacher and publicist named Beth Obermeyer took steps, shuffle and otherwise, to bring distance tap into the modern era.
That summer, Obermeyer was preparing to lead a group of tap students through the streets of Minneapolis as part of an annual city parade. She did not know of the history-making potential of her "Minneapple Tappers" until she chanced upon this little-known fact: The record for long-distance tap dancing was then 3 miles, set in San Francisco the year before.
To anyone else, perhaps, a useless statistic. Not to Beth Obermeyer. She quickly surmised that if her tappers began their routine in the parade staging area and continued all the way to the buses, they could add a full mile to the route and the record would be theirs.
And so, in 1985, the Guinness book duly noted that "the longest distance tap danced non-stop is 4.1 miles by a group of 22, led by Beth Obermeyer and her daughter Kristin, 12 ... in 90 degree heat and 70 percent humidity."
Sadly, this historic entry neglected the fact that both Obermeyers were wearing giant apples made of foam board at the time. But more important, Guinness had finally acknowledged the sport in print.
And the former record holder? Her name might not have been in the Guinness book, but the world hadn't heard the last of her.
In 1986, the world of long-distance tap witnessed another exciting development. Elizabeth Ursic and Deebie Symmes, friends working toward MBA degrees at the Wharton School, were spotted by producers at a New York City club and invited to appear in the Stevie Wonder video "Part-Time Lover."
For reasons too complex to explain here (but perfect for an 11-part tap documentary; Ken Burns, are you listening?) their video experience inspired the women to try to break a Guinness record.
But which one? The women soon realized that they were neither odd nor patient enough to compete in most Guinness categories. Longest sneezing fit? Slimmest waist? Most hot dogs eaten in a minute?
They had nearly given up hope when they came across Obermeyer's record. It was destiny: Both women were runners with tap dancing experience. And so, on May 4, 1986, the pair tapped 6 miles of Philadelphia's 10-mile Broad Street Run.
"Growing up, I didn't really consider myself an athlete," Ursic says now. "So to participate in breaking a record that continues is exciting."
In the wake of their accomplishment, it was clear the lure of long-distance tap dancing was growing stronger. Because amazingly enough, the two friends weren't the only people to tap 6 miles that year. On Aug. 16, a woman not only tapped 6 miles, but did so with a line of 17 other dancers tapping behind her.
Her name was Rosie Radiator.
She lived in San Francisco.
Unfortunately, the fabled team of Ursic and Symmes split up after graduation. And the 6-mile record they shared was soon usurped by none other than Rosie Radiator, who, "on July 18, 1987, danced 7 3/4 miles in leading a column of 14 tap dancers across San Francisco."
"I know this sounds very funny," says Ursic. "But when Rosie did 7 miles, it was kind of like the gauntlet had been thrown. We were happy to share the title, and then she went out and blew our record away."
For a few years, Ursic bided her time. But then, "pretty much on a whim," on Jan. 10, 1993, Ursic tapped a half-marathon -- 13.1 miles -- in Tempe, Ariz. She even performed mini-shows at the water stations. But in a shocking move, Guinness officials refused to recognize her. Ursic, they said, had broken a rule by not tapping with at least 10 people behind her.
"It was not my intent to break a rule," says Ursic. "I certainly wouldn't have gone tapping 13.1 miles knowing I was breaking a rule."
Guinness officials responded by asking Ursic to send "more documentation" of her efforts. But Ursic had nothing more to send them.
And then, one day, Sports Illustrated called.
The magazine was printing a story about 93 things that went right in sports during 1993. Things such as Mario Lemieux coming back to hockey after treatment for Hodgkin's disease. Things such as Sheryl Swoopes' starring performance in the NCAA women's basketball finals.
Things such as Ursic tapping 13.1 miles. Her accomplishment, ranked 54th, appeared with a full-page color picture.
She sent a copy of the article to Guinness, which sent back a certificate. It said that Elizabeth Ursic, having tapped 13.1 miles, held the record in the Guinness category of longest solo tap dance.
Tapping to tribute
Ursic's stunning achievement would forever change the playing field for long-distance tap dancers. But an equally important milestone of the mid-1990s was a ground-breaking Sunsweet Prune Juice commercial. In it, a woman taps her way down the double yellow line of a winding asphalt road. Behind her are the unmistakable waters of San Francisco Bay. And on the screen is her name.
Not long ago, I started tap dancing, Bess Bair says in the voice-over. And almost 8 miles later, I arrived in the record book. That takes a lot of juice. Sunsweet Prune Juice. All the juice you need.
Who was this Bess Bair?
Her story begins in Arcadia, Calif., where Bair, then 3, started tapping atop a giant tree stump. She went on to be a professional dancer, choreographer and dance teacher. In 1976, she tapped across the Golden Gate Bridge, accompanied by a poodle named Lulu with quarters taped to her feet. It was, she later told the San Francisco Examiner, a tribute to her grandmother.
"She was bedridden at the time, and it was the end of her life. She told me, 'I really wish I could say thank you to San Francisco for being such a wonderful city.' I just got this idea that I wanted to do a tribute to her, to her memory and her spirit."
A tradition was born. Every year since, Bess Bair has proclaimed a "Tap Dance Day" and led a chain of dancers through the streets. "We do this to celebrate the joy of modern tap dancing," she once told the Examiner, "and to celebrate the fact that we live in a city that does not arrest us for this sort of thing."
Quite the contrary. In fact, Mayor Dianne Feinstein once called her the "true spirit of San Francisco." Of course, by the time Feinstein said this, Bair was better known by her stage name, a remnant from her days teaching auto mechanics.
"I'm the person who started the whole thing," remembers Rosie. "I set the record in '76, but it was years before the Guinness Book ever even recognized it. I'm the one who inspired every single one of those people."
And what does she say about Elizabeth Ursic, her former rival?
"I would respect nobody's solo record," Rosie says. "It holds no allure for me, even though I held it for years. Because the challenge of group tap dance -- the choreography, the overlapping rhythms, the intricate combinations of sounds -- oh my gosh, that is so exciting! That's what holds my interest. Solo tap dancing, that's lonely. Who wants to do that by yourself?"
As for the future, Rosie is unequivocal.
"We will maintain our standing," she says. "We're the Guinness world champions in long-distance tap dancing."
Setting an example
Laurie Churchwell was utterly unaware of the group-solo schism when she first saw Rosie's prune juice commercial. But almost immediately, Churchwell, an aerobics and dance teacher in Big Spring, Texas, had two thoughts.
First, the winner of an endurance contest seemed an unlikely spokeswoman for prune juice.
And second: Eight miles? I could tap 8 miles.
Upon learning that the record was actually 13.1 miles, Churchwell remained confident, inspired by causes greater than her own. She wanted to encourage her dance students, raise money to build a neighborhood playground and teach a lesson to her son Tanner, who recently had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes.
"I wanted to let him know that, hey, don't let anything get in your way," Churchwell remembers. "You can do whatever you want to do."
Churchwell trained hard, lifting weights, running, tapping on a treadmill. On March 9, 1996, she outdid her goal of 15 miles and tapped 17.9 miles across the Howard College campus.
"It's great for your self esteem," Churchwell says. "I think everybody should hold a world record."
But what about holding on to it? "It doesn't matter to me at all," says Churchwell, who says she has no plans to reclaim her title. "I know I could. But why? I did it once."
In 1997, Churchwell's name and picture made the 40th anniversary edition of the Guinness Book. This was the same edition that Angell Husted, fast approaching her 50th birthday, read from cover to cover, looking for a record -- any record -- to break.
Deciding to just do it
The journey of 20.04 miles began with a single phone call.
To a tap teacher.
"She asked me if I thought it was crazy and I said no," recalls Pamela Brushwood, who runs Brushwood's School of Dance in Gordonsville, Va. "I thought it was wonderful."
Husted wasn't a tap dancer. But she'd once won a 48-hour dance marathon and was in great shape from teaching aerobics. Tapping farther than 17.9 miles seemed her best chance of breaking a record.
She wasn't doing it for the recognition. Husted was already something of a local celebrity in Charlottesville, a former television reporter and anchorwoman who kept busy hosting parades and telethons, volunteering and raising four sons. She would soon own her own aerobics and dance studio. But something was missing.
"I can remember as a little girl being so fascinated by the Guinness book and thinking maybe some day I could do that," says Husted, now 51. "When we reach certain ages we realize, hey, life is not a dress rehearsal. Do it."
There were naysayers, to be sure.
"When you do this," said her 16-year-old son, "I'm going to tell people you're not my mom."
Husted held fast. And on Mother's Day weekend, she tapped around a plywood track for almost nine hours with only a five-minute bathroom break every 60 minutes, bringing the new women's record to 20.04 miles. In the fine tradition of Rosie Radiator, Husted dedicated her effort to her nearly 90-year-old mother, and set a goal of raising $9,000 for Habitat for Humanity.
"The last six laps, I felt like I was going in slow motion," says Husted. "I remember looking at the track, and it seemed like I was floating above it. Talk about a runner's high! It was wonderful."
Told that Churchwell, whose record Husted broke, was happy for her, Husted replied: "I figured she would be. As I will be for the next person."
* The men's record, which David Meenan himself topped on Aug. 31, 1997, tapping 28.24 miles. He was later heard to say: "I would rather run two marathons back to back than ever have to go through this again."