THE ROAD TO ROME

Old stars and a promising newcomer qualified for the World Championships in Italy
July 05, 1987

CARL LEWIS SENSED WHAT SPRINTERS DREAD: the first tightening of unseen fingers, a twinge. He was a yard behind the field early in a 100-meter dash semifinal at the USA/Mobil Outdoor Track & Field Championships on San Jose City College's sea-blue track on Saturday, and the hamstring muscle running up the rear of his left thigh was telling him that it was about to be taken over by a cramp. He knew if he kept heedlessly sprinting, the stronger quadriceps on the front of his thigh could tear apart the tightened hamstring. He kept sprinting.

No one would have blamed Lewis if he had eased. The day before, he had won a spirited long jump competition with a leap of 28'4½", having been forced to stop babying a "funny-feeling" knee by the aggressive jumping of Larry Myricks, who was second with 28'3¾", and of Mike Conley, third at 28'¾". That was the first time that three men have surpassed 28 feet in one meet.

An hour after the long jump, Lewis won his 200 semifinal in a wind-aided 20.11 and the 200 final in a legal 20.12. That pair of hard furlongs, he was sure, had a lot to do with his wildly signaling limb.

The traditional order of the sprints in national championships is the 100 first and then the 200. But at the TAC meet in San Jose, officials scheduled the 200 for Friday and the 100 for Saturday to allow sprinters to run either the 100-200 double or the 200-400 double. Many of the athletes didn't appreciate the change, but this wasn't a meet they could skip. It was the qualifier for the U.S. team going to the once-in-four-years IAAF World Championships in Rome later this summer.

"The 100 is explosion," said Lewis before the 100 semis. "The 200 is smooth acceleration and relaxation. You can run the 200 after the 100. But if you switch them, make people try to explode when they're tired, you set them up for injury."

Then he watched his words become wounded flesh. In the first women's 100 semi, world-record holder and Olympic champion Evelyn Ashford, who had babied a tender hamstring to fifth place in the 200 (but still qualifed for Rome because two of the women who beat her, Grace Jackson and Juliet Cuthbert, are Jamaican), pulled up with 10 meters to go and didn't make the final. Ashford's subsequent remarks about the sprint scheduling were so salty that they shall be kept from modest eyes.

A few minutes later Lewis went out and felt his own hamstring clutch. He ran without asking anything more of the leg than what it was already giving, and, surprisingly, he won the semi in 10.13. "But it was sore afterward," he said. At once Lewis went to Santa Monica Track Club teammate Mark Witherspoon, whom he had persuaded to enter the race despite a sore foot. Lewis told Witherspoon that he was running just to make the team. It was Witherspoon's turn to win.

A clue as to why Lewis would risk serious injury by running at all was provided by a small twist of black ribbon that both he and Witherspoon wore on their shirts. The ribbon was in remembrance of Bill Lewis, Carl's father and first coach, who died in May. "My father urged me to go for it, for everything, all the time," said Lewis, who has honed himself to a taut edge. His features seem cut from obsidian. "I wanted to make the team in the 100. I had to. If my father was in the stands, maybe I'd have walked over and told him about my leg, and he'd have understood and said don't run. But he wasn't. So I had to run."

In the final he and Witherspoon withstood a rocket start by indoor TAC champion Lee McRae. They began gaining on McRae with 50 meters to go, and both passed him before the line. The crowd had watched in expectant silence, waiting for Lewis's explosion. It never came, and Witherspoon won in 10.04, to Lewis's 10.05. It was Witherspoon's first win over his stablemate.

"I can't believe I made it," Lewis said. "Pop, it's a clear day. I know you're looking. I made it." Then his mother, Evelyn, drew him away, putting an arm around him, rubbing the small of his back, comforting and being comforted.

This meet didn't show people at their fastest—there were too many qualifying rounds for that—but at their toughest. Witness the season's great new talent, 400-meter runner Harry (Butch) Reynolds. The rangy Ohio State junior had won the NCAA meet in 44.13. In San Jose he toyed with a powerful field, running with strength and sense.

"He doesn't try to overpower the thing," said UCLA sprint coach John Smith. "He goes out in 21.7, not fast for a guy who can sprint 200 in 20.4. Then he comes back with whatever is necessary."

In the final, Reynolds went out in 21.7. He came back in 22.7, a statistic that shows almost perfect disdain for fatigue, and more than enough to win in 44.46. A warm, winsome guy, Reynolds is somewhat abashed at his burgeoning powers, saying, "I just want to feel I can run with the best." The observer senses he is watching the beginning of an Edwin Moses-like career.

The original Moses came to San Jose eager for his first rematch with Danny Harris since Harris ended Moses's decade of 400-meter-hurdle victories three weeks ago. Moses hit the first hurdle, yet was leading by the second and put on such a charge at the fifth that Harris watched him in shock. "That was stronger than I ever saw anyone move there," Harris said. "I lost concentration when he went past me, hit the ninth hurdle and that was it." Moses roared away to win in 47.99. Harris finished second in a poleaxed 48.70.

"He thinks that was a strong move," said Moses, his tone gentler than his sentences. "It's going to be worse than that later in the year. I made a lot of mistakes. I can go faster."

A single defeat, clearly, has aroused the lion. "I have been hearing these rumors—he's old, he's washed up," said Moses with narrow eyes and the trace of a smile. "It's nice to have some evidence otherwise."

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONLewis strained a hamstring in the 100 semis after taking the long jump and the 200. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWinning the 400 final, the powerful Reynolds showed he may be just hitting his stride.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)