From a low coil at the head of the long jump runway, 22-year-old
Kareem Streete-Thompson slowly began clapping, raising his arms
in a wide arc until his hands met above his head, then
quickening his pace as the spectators joined him. He had drawn
in his mind a moment much like this one and envisioned it for
weeks. He saw himself competing against Carl Lewis and Mike
Powell in the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships,
standing in the glowing sunshine on the infield at Sacramento's
Hughes Stadium, seizing control of an event from two men who
have dominated it for almost 15 years. "If they jump 28 feet,
I'm going to jump 28-1," Streete-Thompson said Saturday. "This
is a landmark event for me."
This is an article from the June 26, 1995 issue
That was a vision full of promise. The reality on Sunday was
stoked by desperation. There was one jump left in the
competition, and Streete-Thompson sat in fifth place. Powell was
first and Lewis second, virtually assured spots on the U.S. team
for the world championships in Goteborg, Sweden, in August.
Streete-Thompson was pursuing the third and final spot as he
stopped clapping and began sprinting down the runway for his
final jump. He would soar 27'5-1/4", enough to pass Percy Knox
and Roland McGhee, the latter by half an inch, and move into
third place. As Streete-Thompson celebrated, Lewis lay on his
back with his eyes closed, and Powell pulled on his sweats,
having decided to pass his final jump. Order remained.
"I'll have other chances," Streete-Thompson said when it was
finished. "It looks like I'm still a pup after all."
And amid the clutter of postrace press conferences and drug
tests, the 31-year-old Powell happened upon a writer who two
weeks before had sought Powell's wisdom on the inevitable
passing of generations in the sport. "Did you see what happened
out there?" Powell shouted, referring to his winning jump of
28'3/4". "Did you see? It's going to be as hard as I can make it
for these guys. It's not time yet." He threw a bag over his
shoulder and wheeled away, ageless for another afternoon.
U.S. track and field waits for its new generation to rise in a
wave and sweep aside the aristocracy of the sport. It waits for
Streete-Thompson, a delightful kid raised in the Cayman Islands.
He ended a 34-meet Powell winning streak last summer and is now
itching to sail past Lewis, with those arresting flecks of gray
on his head, and Powell, who has been plagued by injuries since
he broke Bob Beamon's 23-year-old world record in 1991. During
the five days of the nationals last week, there were two
recurring themes: the surpassing long-sprint brilliance of
Michael Johnson, who became the first man in the 20th century to
win U.S. titles in the 200 and the 400, whether the unit of
measurement is the yard or the meter, and the stubborn
entrenchment of athletic graybeards.
On Sunday afternoon Roger Kingdom folded his 32-year-old body
into the starting blocks for the 110-meter hurdles. Kingdom's
resume is filled with honors, most notably Olympic gold medals
in 1984 and '88. But since undergoing a reconstruction of his
right knee in September 1991 (to repair his anterior cruciate
ligament, which he learned had been torn four years earlier),
Kingdom had all but disappeared. "Everybody tried to retire me,"
he said. But Kingdom never ceased training.
There are reminders of his age at every turn. The top-ranked
sprint hurdler in the world is 24-year-old Allen Johnson, whose
girlfriend is Dee Dee Kennedy, daughter of a coach who worked
with Kingdom when he attended Pittsburgh. "I remember her when
she was like this," said Kingdom, placing his palm at mid-thigh
level. Kingdom also has a four-year-old daughter, Jierra, which
makes him seem less than threatening to the likes of Allen
Johnson and world-record holder Colin Jackson. Kingdom's cachet
in Europe has suffered so much that he has been offered a lane
in just one race there this summer, on June 28 in Helsinki.
But none of that seemed to affect Kingdom in Sacramento. He was
no better than sixth from the blocks but caught Johnson at the
ninth of 10 hurdles and won by a sliver of daylight in 13.09
seconds. Johnson embraced Kingdom after the race and whispered,
"I'm ready to beat the world," said Kingdom. "I've been through
a lot of pain, and now when I'm in a race, they're going to fear
Pain and fear are familiar to Gwen Torrence, too, although last
Thursday the fear was for her well-being. Torrence galloped
through a 100-meter qualifying race on a sore right knee and
hamstring, then stood alone outside the stadium, weeping in
pain. Her husband and coach, Manley Waller, told her, "Forget
it, baby, let's go home." But the 30-year-old Torrence ran
another heat that night and four more races in the next three
days, leaving Sacramento with a sore leg and national
championships in the 100 (11.04) and the 200 (22.03).
Torrence's gutsy performance reaffirmed her status as the
preeminent woman sprinter in the U.S., a distinction earned with
two gold medals in Barcelona in 1992. Now she will rest before
chasing the 100-meter title in Sweden. She is perhaps better
able to handle a 200-400 double, but what she covets is the 100,
so she'll do the 100-200 double. "Everyone wants to be the
world's fastest woman," she said. "People tell me I'm better
suited to the 400, but there's something about that 100 title."
There's no need to remind Lewis. He qualified for the 100 final
in an encouraging 10.12 seconds but finished sixth, in 10.32. "I
ran slow" was his angry -- and honest -- response. On Sunday,
with fierce following winds and much pressure, Lewis resurrected
himself in the long jump, going 27'8-3/4" on his third leap. He
rose from the pit, arms in the air, a pose as familiar as Joe
Montana's touchdown signal.
Again and again it happened, this rush of late-career heroism.
"The older guys get their motivation from us," said Allen
Johnson. But motivation has always been a temporary antidote for
the ravages of time. Powell, for all his injuries, lost only
three times last year, twice to Streete-Thompson. And how does
Torrence win two races on a leg and a half? It has to do as much
with the endurance of the champions as with the fact that their
would-be successors have yet to develop.
But one athlete here stood apart from all that. Michael Johnson
is neither aged nor wishful; he is 27 years old and at the peak
of his athletic skills. He has become the most dominant 200- and
400-meter runner in history, his status achieved by increments.
He won the world championship 200 in 1991 and the 400 in '93,
around a disappointing '92 Olympics in which he suffered from
food poisoning and failed to make the final of the 200 but ran
on the U.S.'s gold medal 4¬¥400-meter relay team. He is scarcely
anonymous; in Europe he is a bright star who makes a comfortable
living. But in combining the 200 and 400 this summer, Johnson
seeks a level of greatness attained in this country only by Lewis.
In Sacramento, Johnson took large strides toward that goal.
"Very hard to beat right now," said 100-meter winner Mike Marsh,
who was sixth behind Johnson's wind-aided 19.83 in the 200.
In last Friday's 400 final Johnson walked -- by his standards --
the first 200 meters, sitting cool as Darnell Hall ripped past
him through a 21.2-second split (Johnson was caught in a
controlled 21.5). But Johnson accelerated through the curve in
his familiar low scoot, head high, back slightly arched, arms
driving. He reached 300 meters in 31.8 seconds, meaning that he
ran 100 meters on a curve in a ridiculous 10.3 seconds. He was
nearly 10 meters ahead of a closing Butch Reynolds at the
finish, where he danced sideways across the line and still ran
the fastest 400 ever on U.S. soil, 43.66 seconds.
"When I think I can get the record, you'll see me with a big
ugly face on, my head way back, chest out," Johnson said. It
seems inevitable that he will break Reynolds's 1988 mark of
43.29, perhaps approaching 43-flat, although Reynolds warns
against presumption. "From 43.66 to 43.29, that's a different
kind of pain," he says. "I felt that pain. You don't want to get
to that place too often."
For Johnson, success has brought a greater sense of ease. He is
by nature a stoic, the type of athlete whose smile is engaging
because it is so rarely seen. In Sacramento he slowly began
allowing his personality to slip out: There was the dance across
the finish line, and a few moments later, in a press conference,
he said he was headed for a "sub-42-second 400 meters." It was a
misstatement that Johnson turned into a small slice of comedy.
"I'm trying to tackle a sub-43 now," Johnson said. "But now you
know where I'm headed." And then came the smile.
He is without humor on the subject of attempting a 200-400
double at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. In Sacramento there was
and in Goteborg there will be no overlap of the two events, but
the Atlanta schedule now calls for 200-meter semifinals on the
same day as the 400 final. The International Amateur Athletic
Federation recently widened the gap between the races, allowing
Johnson -- for he is the only one likely to attempt this
punishing test -- two hours and 35 minutes instead of one hour
and 40 minutes. But even the new span, Johnson feels, is
inadequate. "I appreciate what they've done," he says, "but it's
not enough. Whichever race I don't run will be a joke, and I
won't be the only one who will be disappointed."
If IAAF officials are unaware of what Johnson's presence means,
they need only have seen him attempt to leave the concrete
horseshoe of Hughes Stadium last Saturday. After the interviews
and the congratulations, there was half an hour spent providing
specimens for drug testing. Dozens of fans waited in the sun for
his return, then proffered all manner of clothing and paper for
his signature. Johnson paused and signed until, after perhaps 10
minutes, he finally turned and jogged toward his car.
A small, round man stood at the stadium gate. "Michael," he
yelled, "don't make me chase you." But this was Michael Johnson,
the face of track and field in bloom. Everybody chases him.