Turning Away the Doubters

Michael Johnson won a race for respect in the 400 at the U.S. Track and field championships
June 27, 1993

Quarter-milers seek their fate not in their souls but in their lanes. When Michael Johnson of Dallas awoke last Saturday morning, the day of the 400-meter final at the USA/Mobil Track & Field Championships at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field, in Eugene, his agent, Brad Hunt, told him he had drawn Lane 3. The force of Johnson's reaction made the hair rise on Hunt's neck. "It's on" Johnson rumbled, his eyes narrowing in pleasure.

Because of the 400's staggered start, each lane is a slightly different version of a good-news, bad-news joke. Runners on the inside arc hindered by the tighter turns but can see and stalk the competition. The outside lanes offer wider bends but at the cost of being blind to any moves made by runners inside.

Thus Johnson, who was top ranked in both the 200 and the 400 in 1990 and '91, and is perhaps the best sprinter of tight turns ever, was right where he wanted to be, a specter, preying on the minds of the magnificent quarter-milers ranged outside him.

"Never," he said afterward, "have I run against this much talent."

The field included 1991 world champion Antonio Pettigrew, 1992 Olympic champion Quincy Watts and world-record holder (43.29) Butch Reynolds. Reynolds had been tempered by three years of battle with the International Amateur Athletic Federation over a drug suspension, but he was still so nervous he could barely cat. "This 400 is a man's race," he said. "This race is rated X, for adults only. Boys, please stay home."

That was a dart aimed at Johnson. For though Johnson is the only man ever to break 20 (he has a 19.79) and 44 (43.98) seconds for the 200 and the 400, respectively, and though not once in his life has he been beaten in a 400 final, he has stuck so firmly to the 200 in world and Olympic competition that he has never been accepted as a peer by the brotherhood of quarter-milers.

"They always say that I'm only a boy," says Johnson, "that I've only run single 400s, not the rounds of an Olympics. They say it's easy to come out and beat up on people in a selected race, but it takes a man to last through heats and semis and finals. Lot of cm didn't even want me to run a leg on the Olympic 4 X 400 relay."

So Johnson had come to Eugene to shoulder his way into the club, although his move to the 400 also had a little to do with straining his left hamstring while running a 10.12 and 20.15 sprint double at the Arlington Open in Texas on May 1. When he was forced to curtail his speed work, the 400 became his best and safest event. Although he knew that husbanding his strength through the prelims was his essential challenge, he boomed out to a big lead in his heat anyway then slowed dramatically to walk in with 45.62.

Reynolds's coach. Brooks Johnson, saw that and read unsureness. "A person sublimely arrogant," he said, "doesn't get involved in that kind of display."

Reynolds ran a cautious heat but then burned the fastest time in the semis, 44.81. "Little problem there controlling my aggression," he said. "I feel like I've been ready to run this race for a month."

"Butch needs the adrenaline," says Brooks Johnson. "If he feels the emotion, he transcends his training and docs things that don't seem possible for him."

Watts was hoping to summon a little of that same juice. The Barcelona 400 champion had been feeling his way through a transition year in which he became famous, bought a house, graduated from USC, changed coaches, added an agent, and picked up a bothersome pain in his groin and six unnecessary pounds. "I'm not as sharp as I was last year at this time," he said. "Then I'd had 24 races. This year I've had five."

"He's been pulling his races together with chewing gum and Band-Aids," said his Nike International-L.A. club teammate Kevin Young. "When he started to listen to everybody and his brother debating tactics, I told him to cut through all of that and just run his own race." Young even provided an object lesson. On Friday he won the 400-meter hurdles by a full second in a masterful 47.69.

Watching the 6'3", 200-pound Watts and the 6'3", 180-pound Reynolds gobbling up ground in the 400 prelims. Brooks Johnson declared his preference. "Good big people," he said, "beat the tar out of good smaller ones." The designated small guy, of course, was Johnson, who is 6 feet and 170 pounds.

Michael Johnson contrasts with Reynolds in ways that seem designed to exasperate Reynolds's coach. Brooks Johnson is an injector of passion. Michael Johnson is a cool, dry, systematic athlete who rarely speaks of, or shows, emotion. Brooks Johnson likes high knees and a long stride. Michael Johnson lifts his knees hardly at all and has the shortest stride of any world-class sprinter. Brooks Johnson teaches his runners to maintain a forward lean in the late stages of the race. If Michael Johnson leans, it is backward. So the 400 final seemed to be a clash of schools of biomechanics as well as of men.

As the 400-meter runners settled into the blocks, the strong north wind that had blown almost throughout the five-day meet finally died away.

That wind had made for gaudy, if illegal, dash times. The men's 100 was won by Andre Cason, who a year ago was carted from the track at the Olympic trials with a torn calf muscle. Rebuilt to sturdier specifications by new coach Loren Seagrave, Cason twice ran windy 9.79s in the preliminaries on Wednesday. Carl Lewis's world record is 9.86.

Before the 100 final on Thursday, Sea-grave told Cason, who was in Lane 6, to sprint as if in a tube, all alone, apart from the reality of a charging Lewis, who was one lane inside. Olympic bronze medalist Dennis Mitchell, in Lane 3, told himself to do the same. Cason started strongly. So did Mitchell. But at 95 meters neither could bear the suspense any longer. Cason looked left. Mitchell looked right. Their eyes met. Cason won by a couple of inches, and Mitchell was left to wonder whether he might have won if he had kept his eyes to the front. Both were timed in a wind-aided 9.85. Lewis was third in 9.90.

Lewis returned to shine a flashlight around in the only cavern of his talent that he hasn't fully explored, the 200 meters. If he hadn't celebrated his 1983 nationals 200 victory 10 meters too soon, he would have held the world record for the past decade. This year, at almost 32, he's serious about the 200. But his friend and teammate, Barcelona champion Mike Marsh, edged him on Saturday in a windy 19.97 to Lewis's 20.07.

The tail winds made the short-hurdle races reverberate with clanging barriers and splattering athletes. Grand old 110-meter-hurdle rivals Greg Foster and Renaldo Nehemiah, who were blown too close to the sticks, went down in separate semifinals, ending an era. The final went to Jack Pierce, who scraped a few hurdles but still won in 13.19.

But it was the 400-meter final, the last race of the meet, that was the magnet and climax of the championships. Even the unexpected sight of Eugene's favorite first-grade teacher, the gritty Annette Peters—who had insisted she had no kick left after winning the women's 3,000—blazing past Suzy Hamilton and Alisa Hill to win the 1,500 served only as a warmup act, whipping the crowd into a proper frame of mind for the men's quarter.

At the gun Andrew Valmon's blocks in Lane 4 slipped slightly, but he recovered, and the field was away. Watts, in Lane 7, went hardest. "I wanted to be like a fox," he said later. "If I was going to lose, they were going to have to chase me down in the woods. Deep in the woods."

Reynolds started well in Lane 5, taking care not to go wild. The race, he felt, would be decided in the last 100. Stay in contention, he told himself, and your strength will take you home. In the back-stretch he seemed silk on rails.

Johnson departed from the blocks with disturbing nonchalance but soon was running third, about even with Reynolds. His pistonlike stride was impossible to read for fatigue or reserve. "I wanted 21 seconds for the 200," he would say. "But Quincy had quite a gap on us. I relaxed and waited."

Watts passed 200 meters in 20.95 seconds, looking more powerful than he had in the Olympic final. For a moment he seemed uncatchable.

Then Johnson took off. There have been few moves like it—perhaps Otis Davis's explosive third 100 in the 1960 Rome Olympic final or Reynolds's majestic, eyes-shut homestretch run in his world-record race in Zurich in 1988. Suddenly, Johnson looked like a roller-derby skater who had been hurled ahead by a line of teammates.

He went by Valmon so fast it was all the seasoned Olympian could do to keep from panicking. He shot past Watts as they came out of the turn. "Watts was done, I had Butch in check, and I felt like I had a lot left," said Johnson. "I concentrated on holding my form."

Reynolds passed Watts but could not gain on Johnson. "He did what I'm accustomed to doing," Reynolds said afterward. "Michael has a lot of 100s and 200s under his belt this year, so he had the leg speed to make a move like that on the turn. It was a mistake for me not to race for a month before this."

The calm little guy won in 43.74, which is the fastest ever run on U.S. soil and fourth fastest ever in the world, behind only the marks of the two big guys Johnson left flailing in his wake. Reynolds was second in 44.12, and Watts barely held off Valmon for third, 44.24 to 44.28.

Johnson's smile was wide and deep when he realized what he had done. "I feel this validated my whole approach," he said. "People said I didn't deserve to be top ranked those two years in the 400 when I didn't run it in the major meets, and people doubted I'd make it through the rounds. But here I ran my fastest time when I was supposed to be a tired boy."

The object of all this effort, of course, was to select the U.S. team for the World Championships in Stuttgart in August. Johnson, Reynolds and Watts qualified in the 400. So even though Johnson was at last grudgingly granted to be a true quarter-miler, his competitors were quick to imagine pinning his ears back in Germany. Watts reminded people that he was only third in the Olympic trials last year but took the gold easily in Barcelona. Reynolds spoke of sprint training that in two months will let him reach the stretch ahead of the tough little guy. "Then we sec who the man is," Reynolds said.

Johnson heard some of this and allowed that the Stuttgart 400, with everyone racing fit, may well turn into a classic, but one with a familiar shape. "If I come off the turn with the momentum I had today," he said, businesslike to the end, "they can't catch me."

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERA late rush by Johnson (314) put away, among others, Watts (457) and Reynolds (655). PHOTOPETER READ MILLERIn the 100 Cason (raised arm) held off a hard-charging Lewis (right), who finished third. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONStrong tail winds during the 110-meter highs left Roger Kingdom with a hurdle for a girdle. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONPeters was a hometown hit in the 1,500 meters while Hamilton merely hit the deck.

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)