Two sprinters, one coach, win gold in an unforgettable night
DAEGU, South Korea -- The sprinter embraced the coach and both of them began to cry. There were cameras nearby, and journalists and volunteers, too, but the sprinter was at last a champion and the coach was back in the game and so it didn't matter who was watching. And right there in the belly of a stadium it began to look just like a moment that took place on another late summer night in another stadium far from home.
That was 14 years ago and the stadium was in Athens. The sprinter was a kid from Kansas City, Kansas named Maurice Greene and one day in the fall of 1996 he had just up and driven with his father to Los Angeles and asked the coach to make him fast. That night in 1997 in Greece, less than a year later, Greene beat the reigning Olympic gold medalist, Donovan Bailey of Canada, to win the 100 meter world championship and when he found the coach in the basement of the stadium he dropped to a sitting position on a concrete curb and began to cry. The coach patted him on his back and whispered into his ear, telling him that he had earned the medal around his neck.
On Monday night at this year's world championships, the sprinter was Carmelita Jeter. One day in 2008, she met up with the coach. It was a shorter drive in miles, because both of them live in the Los Angeles area, but it was no less daunting than Greene's journey, because Jeter was already 28 years old and her window was closing. Now here at 31 she had become the oldest 100 meter women's world champion, holding off Jamaicans Veronica Campbell-Brown (silver) and 2008 Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (4th) and Kelly-Ann Baptiste (bronze) of Trinidad and Tobago to win the sport's signature sprint. She flew on words her coach spoke to her before her race: "He said I've worked too hard to throw it away,'' said Jeter. "That I'm a warrior and I've got to get out there and fight for it, because ain't nobody gonna give it to me.''
Fourteen years ago, Greene sat crying and said: "I've worked so hard....'' The message has never changed.
Two champions. One coach. The man who comforted Greene 14 years ago and who embraced Jeter in Daegu Monday night is John Smith, 61, who is regarded inside the sport one as not only one of the best tactical sprint coaches in history ("The godfather of the drive phase,'' says former Smith pupil and current U.S. team coach Jon Drummond, referencing a sprint start technique that is used throughout the sport), and also as a trackside philosopher who works on athletes' heads as diligently as he works on their legs.
Smith began churning out gold medalists back in the 1992, when he took youngsters Quincy Watts of USC (400 meters) and Kevin Young of UCLA (400 meter hurdles, still the world record holder) straight from college to Barcelona and came home with two gold medals. He presided over the rowdy glory days of the HSI team with core pieces Greene, Drummond, Ato Boldon and Inger Miller; all of them world champions or Olympic gold medalists (and some both). They cut a swath through the sport, leaving no trash untalked.
But the last several years have been less kind. Several of Smith's athletes tested positive for banned substances in the mid-2000s, and whatever his direct involvement, he was handed a scarlet letter and will wear it for the rest of his career. His athletes will receive collateral scrutiny. That is the way it works in track and field and while it's not fair, it's reality. "I've been at the track coaching athletes with the FBI watching me,'' says Smith. "I've been through a lot.''
But Monday was a return to the top of the podium, times two. Twenty minutes before Jeter won her gold medal, 25-year-old Jason Richardson, a willowy 6-2, 170-pound hurdler with a riot of dreadlocks tied into a knotted ponytail, had won the gold medal in one of the 110 meter hurdles, in the process beating the three fastest men in history.
Actually, Richardson didn't win the gold medal in real time on the track. He finished second between Dayron Robles of Cuba (the world record holder and 2008 Olympic gold medalist) and Liu Xiang (the 2004 Olympic gold medalist and second-fastest man in history; David Oliver of the U.S., the third-fastest man n history, was a disappointing fifth) for the silver medal. But as Richardson leaned against a low wall and answered journalists' questions 30 minutes after the race, he was informed by a British writer--with confirmation from his manager, Emanuel Hudson (the 'H' in one interpretation of HSI; where Smith is the 'S'), that Robles had been disqualified for interfering with Liu late in the race.
Upon hearing that he had been elevated to gold, Richardson appeared to tear up, but then laughed it off and said, "No, that's just an astigmatism.'' The Cuban federation protested the disqualification and it would be another 45 minutes before Robles was fully DQ-ed and Richardson was officially named the gold medalist, the U.S.A.'s fourth in two nights.
Much like Greene 14 years earlier, Richardson drove to Los Angeles from Columbia, South Carolina and asked Smith to make him better. Coming out of Cedar Hill High School, near Dallas, in 2005 -- "Texas made, Texas raised,'' he says -- Richardson had been the top combination hurdler in the country as a high school senior. But he failed to win an NCAA indoors track title (He won the NCAA outdoors track title in the 110 meter hurdles during his senior year at South Carolina). "So I picked up and moved to Cali,'' he said. "The difference for me is getting with a world class coach like John Smith.''
They train every day at West Los Angeles College. In the old days of HSI, it was the ritzier UCLA, but no more. "It's different, the track is a little beat up, but they like us,'' says Smith. "We like it there.'' (One note here, Richardson is managed by HSI's Hudson, but Jeter, although she is trained by Smith, is not; her manager is Chris Layne). Jeter and Richardson balance each other, he the bubbly young guy, she the serious adult. "She is the consummate professional,'' says Richardson. "This is very much a job.''
Their friendship led to a funny moment in the post-race media area. Jeter was talking to a small group of U.S. journalists and noted that she won the gold and her training partner had won the silver. A writer quickly corrected her with the news that Richardson, who was standing 20 feet away, had, in fact, won the gold. Jeter jumped back and looked at Richardson. "JA-son!" she shouted. "You won the gold?"
Richardson shrugged his shoulders, palms up.
Jeter has more work to do at the worlds. On Thursday she will begin running heats of the 200 meters, an event in which she must now be considered a threat to become the first world championships 100-200 meter doubler since Katrin Krabbe of Germany in 1991. (Kelli White of the U.S. doubled in 2003, but was disqualified when banned drugs were found in her system). She has been running faster with each successive season under Smith; he PR as of 2008 was 10.97 and now it's 10.64. She has run under 10.80 seconds three times, putting her in the alltime elite. (This, too, will lead to innuendo about drug use, but Jeter has never tested positive and has never been accused directly by any opponents).
She came to Daegu having struggled in championship finals, with 100 meter bronzes in both 2007 and '09, as well as bowing out of the '08 Olympic Trials 100 meters in the semifinals. "She needed to learn patience," said Smith. "In big races, she was trying to do everything too quickly.'' Here she was smooth and professional, even as Fraser-Pryce tried to walk her down." She performed like the best runner in the race, which she was.
"I'm pretty excited for the 200,'' Jeter said after in the 100. "The pressure of the 100 is off me. That's my race. That's my baby. I'm just gonna line up and go in the 200.''
Awaiting there will be Allyson Felix of the U.S.A., who was attempting the arduous 200 m-400 m double in Daegu. In the first of three big finals Monday night, she was unable to overhaul Amantle Montshu of Botswana in the final strides and took silver in the 400 meters despite running a personal best of 49.59 seconds. After it was finished, she ducked into a medical area, prompting speculation that she might be injured. In truth, it was just Felix seeking out a place to compose herself in defeat. The public never sees her tears ... if there are tears. "I try to find a place to myself,'' she said. "I'm definitely disappointed.'' (Her father, Paul, standing nearby, said, "I'm not. That was one of the best races I've ever seen Allyson run.'')
Felix, who will not turn 26 until November, has now won seven world championship medals. Monday's was the first non-gold (and no woman has won more than her six golds). In addition to the 200 meters here, she will also run the 4X400 and 4X100 meter relays, a punishing schedule. She wouldn't speculate Monday--after just one event--on a London double. Or even how she will feel for the 200 meter race. In addition to Jeter and Felix, who has won the last three worlds 200 meters, two-time Olympic 200 meter gold medalist Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica will be in the field for the deuce.
But for a night on Monday, the track again belonged to Smith. For a night, he was again spinning parables and describing for the media the act of running on the ground as if it were a quasi-religious experience. He is older now, with more scars and more baggage. Track is a complicated enterprise, with the next bad news always on the doorstep, waiting to spoil the party. Smith has seen it all and for now, he has emerged on the other side with two runners who will hug him in the night and share their glory. "This is one of those nights,'' he said. "This is a good night.''