There were portents in the tornadoes that ripped through central Texas on April 6, 1990, the opening day of the Texas Relays in Austin. The whole day was cold and blustery. But by evening, when Michael Johnson stepped onto the track to anchor Baylor's 4 x 200 relay team, the wind had died, giving way to a chilly stillness.
Johnson grabbed the baton in third place, a dozen meters behind Ralston Wright of TCU and Steve Lofton of Texas A&M. Meet announcer Frank Fallon almost became tongue-tied trying to keep track of Johnson's progress. "He was going so doggone fast I had trouble getting the words out," says Fallon. Johnson caught Lofton first. Then, 10 meters from the finish, he nailed Wright.
"I'm embarrassed to say this," whispered Baylor coach Clyde Hart to a friend, "but I had him in 18.5." Split times for relays are unofficial, but the fastest relay 200 split previously reported was an 18.7. Hart felt a little better when he learned that others in Austin had clocked Johnson in 18.2 or even 18.1.
Like many of Johnson's best runs in 200- and 400-meter competition, his performance in Austin left the imagination lots of room to roam. "Michael's best running is all in front of him," says Hart.
May 19, 1991
Last year Johnson accomplished in one season what no one had ever done in a career: He ended the year ranked first in the world at both 200 and 400 meters. On three occasions he has run the 200 in 19.90 or faster, a feat that no one but Carl Lewis (six times) has been able to achieve more than once in a career. With bests of 19.85 in the 200 and 44.21 in the 400, Johnson is now the only man to appear among the alltime Top 10 performers in both events, ranking fifth in the former and eighth in the latter. He was chosen male Athlete of the Year for 1990 by Track & Field News.
However, Johnson, 23, does not know which of the two events will eventually be his best. "In the 200, I know what I'm doing," he says. "I haven't mastered it yet, but I have an idea what it takes to run a certain time." But at 400, he says, "I'm clueless."
Perhaps, but his success in the two events has created quite a stir. "People are really into that 200-400 thing," says Johnson, sounding genuinely mystified. "I think there's always been a stereotype: If you ran the 200, you also ran the 100. If you ran the 400, that was all you did."
Johnson's voice is a resonant baritone, the perfect vehicle for his matter-of-fact repudiations of the sport's tenets. Peaking? "I've never really followed that philosophy of peaking," he says. "Last year I ran 18.5 [the anchor leg in Austin] in April, 43.5 in May [anchoring a 4 x 400 relay], 19.90 in June, 19.85 in July, 19.88 in August and 44.21 in September. So when did I peak?"
There is no arrogance in the question. Johnson is modest to a fault. Ruby Johnson is not surprised to learn that her son has neglected to mention that he has been given the key to the City of Dallas. "You have to kind of drag it out of him," she says.
"Michael's not comfortable being pampered or treated like a star," says Hart. "It's very important to feel like an athlete and not like a business entity."
The line is blurring. Nike photographed Johnson in San Diego last week. Before that, Esquire shot him in Tampa for its June issue. He was photographed for the cover of Track & Field News's 1990 annual driving a boat around Lake Geneva in Lausanne, Switzerland, and wearing sunglasses and the grin he shares with Eddie Murphy. That's a long way from Waco, where Baylor is situated and where he has lived since 1986.
So is Barcelona, the site of the 1992 Olympic Games and the city where Johnson beat Leroy Burrell last summer to avenge his only outdoor loss of the year in the 200. Because he is one of the sport's prime attractions, Johnson commands healthy guarantees around the world. He denies reports that he was paid $60,000 for the race in Barcelona but won't say how much he did get, and he politely declines to discuss how he invests his money, except in the most general terms. "I never know how long I'll be in this," he says. "I take a very careful approach. I'm not into anything risky. Everything is long-term." The one glaring exception is the white 1991 Corvette to which he treated himself last September.
Johnson, who was graduated from Baylor with a degree in business in December, makes his own business decisions. "I want to control what I do," he says.
Control has sometimes eluded Johnson. In April 1988, he ran the 200 in 20.09, the fastest clocking of the year at the time. At the Drake Relays two weeks later, he easily beat world champion Calvin Smith, and one hour later ran 43.5 on Baylor's 4 x 400 relay. With the Olympic Track and Field Trials 10 weeks away, Johnson could scarcely have felt more ready.
But one month later, while digging around the curve in the NCAA 200 final in Eugene, Ore., Johnson felt a pop on the outside of his left shin. It turned out to be a stress fracture of the fibula. Though he spent six weeks working out in the Baylor swimming pool while nursing the injury, Johnson limped home last in the first round of the Olympic trials 400, in 49.48, and then passed up the 200. The next spring he bruised his right quad at the Southwest Conference meet and never got to the outdoor NCAA championships. "Michael got the label of being injury prone, which he really isn't," says Hart. "It was just the dramatic timing of those two injuries."
Hart thinks Johnson's best race may have come in the 400 on a cold day last June in Blaine, Minn., when he ran 44.58 way out in lane 8 with only the piercing wind for company. But you also could make a very strong case for either of the following.
•Anchoring Baylor's 4 x 400 relay in the prelims of the 1990 NCAA championships, Johnson obeyed Hart's orders and ran just to qualify. Thirty meters from the finish, he began to shut down, crossing the finish line at a jog. Around Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium, some stopwatches caught Johnson in 43.5.
Had Johnson continued to run hard for the entire 400 meters, it seems certain that he would have turned in history's first sub-43 relay leg. "I blame myself for that," says Hart. "I know it would have been the best ever."
•Last July, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Johnson lined up against the best 200-meter field of the year. Along with Smith, it included 1988 Olympic champion Joe DeLoach and John Regis of Great Britain, who later in the summer would win the European title at the distance. Johnson ran a ferocious turn, blowing into the straight with the entire field five meters behind him. By the finish, he was eight meters clear, and his 19.85 was just .13 off Pietro Mennea's 1979 world record. That made Johnson the fifth-fastest runner ever at 200 meters, behind four Olympic champions; at sea level only Lewis and DeLoach have had better times.
After Johnson's performance in Edinburgh, Randall Northam wrote in Athletics Today, a British track and field weekly, "It was, as usual, the manner of the victory which made it extra special. Johnson runs bolt upright, with no knee lift to speak of and a stride length which would not inconvenience an elderly jogger."
If ever a man seemed to confound the laws of sprinting, it is Johnson. "They say he runs like a statue, straight up," says Joel Ezar, who coached Johnson at Skyline High in Dallas. "They say his feet never leave the ground."
The archetypal long sprinters are Tommie Smith or Henry Carr, runners who were tall and lean, with ludicrously long legs. Smith, the 1968 Olympic 200-meter champion, stood 6'3½" and needed pants with 38-inch inseams. When he ran, wrote Frank Deford of SI in 1967, "Smith's knees seem almost to climb to his throat, then...[to flick] out into a monstrous stride that measures almost nine feet." Perhaps because he is the only man ever to hold the world records for the 200-and 400-meter runs simultaneously, Smith still looms in the imagination as the ideal embodiment of the long sprinter.
Johnson is a muscular 6'1" and his stride, in contrast to Smith's, covers roughly 7½ feet. No matter, says Smith, who now teaches physical education at Santa Monica (Calif.) College. "He has amazing turnover. Amazing turnover and a good stride length. I'd love to break him down and see where that comes from."
"Michael is not a classic, high-knee-carriage runner," says Hart, who compares him to Jesse Owens and the Soviet Union's Valeriy Borzov, the Olympic 100 and 200 champion in 1972. "It's his natural running style, and we haven't tampered with it. Maybe some people are spending too much time going up and down and not enough going forward."
Indeed, Johnson's success calls into question many of the ancient saws of sprinting. "Lift your knees—that's what we were taught," says Carr, who at the '64 Olympics won the 200 and anchored the U.S. 4 x 400 relay team to a world record. "The longer your stride, the faster you are. The fewer steps you take, the less energy it takes and the less tired you get."
By contrast, Soviet sprinters have been taught for some time now to shorten their stride late in a race. "They stress repetition," says Hart, "and even before I met Michael, I had conceded there was merit to that. That's why I was never very concerned when people said Michael's knees were too low. He just gets them up and down faster."
Johnson is used to being told he doesn't look like a sprinter. "This is my favorite," says Johnson's father, Paul, as he hands over a photo of his son at age two or three in which Michael looks as if the only way he's ever going to move fast is if he's rolled like a ball. "See how fat he is, and he's got no neck."
Michael grew up in the Oak Cliff section of southwest Dallas, a middle-class neighborhood of two-story houses set on neat lawns. He was the youngest of five children. "My family puts a lot of emphasis on education," says Michael.
"I didn't want them driving a truck like me," says Paul. Even during summer vacations, the Johnson children's mornings belonged to Ruby, who tutored them at home. "They had their playtimes," she says firmly. "But they also had their schoolwork." Sprinting was a harmless diversion, to be tolerated as long as it did not interfere with the real business of school.
Ruby's efforts paid off. Michael's brother and three sisters all were graduated from the University of North Texas (formerly North Texas State), and throughout elementary school and junior high, Michael was placed in classes for the gifted. When it came time for high school, his parents chose Skyline, even though it was in east Dallas, 30 minutes away, and, for students from outside the district, required a formal application. But Skyline had the reputation of being the best high school in Dallas.
Johnson had begun sprinting when he was 11, first in summer meets and then for his junior high school. "He didn't look like an athlete—he looked like an Oxford scholar," says Ezar of the quiet youth who ran in black horn-rims. "In one race, he caught a crosswind and his glasses blew off. It looked like he might stop to pick them up."
"I loved track, but at the time, it was a way to get to a better college," says Johnson. "I wasn't as concerned with track as with education."
The only difficulty was getting noticed in District 10-5A, the powerhouse high school district that encompasses Dallas's biggest schools. When Johnson finished third in the district 200 as a junior, the winner was Franklin Delano Roosevelt High's Roy Martin, who later that spring ran a 20.13, which remains the national high school record. The following year Johnson won the district title, but he was beaten in the state championships by Ball High's Derrick Florence, who two months later would win the world junior title in the 100. Florence still holds the national schoolboy record in the 100.
Johnson was graduated from Skyline with a 200 best of 21.30. "I'd be lying if I said I thought Michael was going to be a world-class sprinter," says Hart. "I don't think anybody did."
Hart recruited Johnson to run relays, a Baylor specialty. But as a freshman Johnson grew to his present size. Training year-round for the first time, he clocked 20.69 in his first outdoor meet and 20.49 in his second, losing narrowly to Floyd Heard, who had been ranked first in the world for the 200 the previous year. It wasn't until that freshman year that Johnson ran his first 400, recording a 46.29.
Without the injuries, Johnson might have reached the summit earlier. "We were all surprised it took so long for him to get where he ultimately should have been," says Raymond Pierre, Johnson's former Baylor teammate and the 1987 Pan Am Games 400 champion. "This year Michael is just going to build on last year."
It looks that way. Johnson opened this outdoor season in mid-April by running 19.2 on a 4 x 200 relay at the Mt. SAC Relays. One week later he clocked a 44.73 400 at the Drake Relays. And on May 6, in Shizuoka, Japan, he did 20.22 for the 200. Róbson da Silva of Brazil, last year's No. 2-ranked 200-meter performer, was left seven meters behind. "We've been extremely surprised," says Hart, pointing out that Johnson has yet to do any real speed work this year. "The reins have been tightened in training."
It's scary, running so fast so early. Johnson admits that he feels capable of breaking Mennea's 200 mark, but his aim for now is the gold medal in the event at the World Championships in August in Tokyo. He also would like to compete in the 4 x 400 relay in Tokyo, but he may not get a chance, even though he now has five sub-44 legs, two more than anyone else in history. To his dismay, The Athletics Congress, which governs track and field in the U.S., ratified a decision by U.S. coach Tom Tellez that to earn a place on the relay team in Tokyo, a runner must enter the 400 at next month's TAC Championships. But the schedule of races at the TAC Championships virtually precludes an athlete from entering both the 200 and 400.
"I can't express how much that disappoints me without getting really ugly," says Johnson, who sees the Tokyo championships as an occasion to shine, finally, in a showcase meet. "If I get there," he says, "I know that I can do something spectacular."