It was nearly three in the morning on Sunday when Dennis
Mitchell rose with a faint groan from the couch in his Atlanta
hotel room, climbed out of his green and black unitard and fell
across the length of a portable rubbing table. Massage therapist
Terry Simes squirted pools of lotion onto the backs of
Mitchell's legs, the ones that had carried him to first place in
the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials more
than five hours earlier. Simes dug his fingers into Mitchell's
depleted hamstrings and calves, salving away the pain.
"Tomorrow, man, tomorrow it'll sink in, what happened out there
tonight," said Mitchell. A gauze pad covered the spot on his
left biceps at which medical attendants at the Olympic Stadium
had stuck needles and emptied two bags of intravenous fluids,
trying to stop the cramps that had racked Mitchell's lower legs,
his upper legs, even his chest. He had been so dehydrated that
it had taken him nearly 90 minutes to produce a urine specimen
for drug testing. Now he closed his eyes, which are so cold in
competition but at this hour looked like the eyes of a tired
child. "Right now," he said, "I'm just numb."
The concept of the trials, which began last Friday and continue
through this weekend, is simple enough: Qualify for the Olympic
team by finishing in the top three. The reality is that they are
a survival test. The first four days spoke as a warning that
both the trials and the Olympics to follow, in late July and
early August, won't be kind to the old, the weak or the
In the gathering haze of Saturday evening, two 34-year-old icons
of U.S. track and field, Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee,
were served with their notices. Lewis, winner of eight gold
medals in three Olympics, cramped badly and finished last in the
final of the 100. Joyner-Kersee made the U.S. team in the
heptathlon but placed second behind 25-year-old Kelly Blair. Not
since 1984 had Joyner-Kersee lost a heptathlon that she had
June 23, 1996
Two nights later, 37-year-old Mary Slaney took a chip out of the
trend. Slaney, the most successful U.S. middle-distance runner
in history, finished second in the 5,000 meters. Slaney, whose
best Olympic chance was marred by her 1984 entanglement with
Zola Budd of Britain, rushed past Libbie Johnson and Amy Rudolph
on the final backstretch, stumbled eerily, then sprinted home
behind winner Lynn Jennings.
The pressure of the trials was most evident in the men's 100.
Having survived three tough rounds on the hard and fast stadium
track, eight sprinters sat together in a waiting room beneath
the stands just minutes before the final. Lewis tried to wish
away the cramps building in his calves, knots that had formed
during his semifinal three hours earlier. Jon Drummond, feeling
baseball-sized cramps in his hamstrings, softly sang gospel
songs to himself and remembered a warning from his mother. "The
devil will try to do something to you this week," she had told
"This was the devil's time, and I couldn't let him win,"
Drummond would say later. As he sat and waited, he remembered a
line of scripture: "No weapon formed against thee shall
prosper." Mitchell thought of the 50 friends and family members
from Sicklerville, N.J., sitting in the stands wearing their
DENNIS MITCHELL, 100-METER GREEN MACHINE T-shirts and of all the
effort he had invested to get to this race.
At 9:45 p.m., after one false start, the runners were called to
the set position. At the gun, Mitchell popped to the lead, just
ahead of Drummond. By 50 meters, Mitchell was three feet clear.
He felt the cramps building and fought just to stay upright, but
in the seats above the finish line, Mike (Mouse) Holloway, the
coach with whom he had reunited last summer in Gainesville,
Fla., rose and screamed, "It's over! It's over!" He was right:
Mitchell fired through the finish in 9.92 seconds, matching the
precocious Ato Boldon of Trinidad for the world's fastest time
this year. Mitchell's mother, Lenora, was so excited that she
couldn't remember the last half of the race. "Never even saw
it," she said.
It has been a season of rebirth for Lenora's 30-year-old son,
who in 1995 suffered through breakups with both his wife and his
coach, John Smith. Mitchell, bronze medalist in the 100 meters
in 1992, works better with Holloway's pounding training style
than with Smith's cerebral, rest-oriented methods. "I like to
work hard, every day at high noon," says Mitchell. He wore a
scowl, a small loop in his right eyebrow and--new this year--a
shaved head, all part of his on-track persona.
It was a monumental race for Drummond, too. As he tore down the
track, he saw Mike Marsh on the other side of Mitchell and tried
to match Marsh's rhythm. "I thought, There's Mike Marsh. If I
run with him, I'll make the team," said Drummond. They flashed
through together, Marsh second in 10.00, Drummond third in 10.01.
In lane 8, far outside the action, Lewis fought to the line in
10.21. He pulled up at the finish, holding his right calf. And
then his left. He had raced brilliantly through the spring,
giving fair reason to expect that he would make a run at his
third Olympic gold medal in the 100. Perhaps it was age or just
an unlucky cramp on an unforgiving track in dense humidity that
denied him. His attempts to make the team in the 200 meters lay
days ahead; he reached the final in the long jump in qualifying
Monday, although he narrowly escaped being struck by an errant
hammer throw. Lewis laughed that off by saying, "Now we've found
a way to have the long jump and the hammer throw at the same
time," but it seemed to symbolize the way the trials were
starting for him.
As the last significant 100 meters of his transcendent career
approached, Lewis had sensed the end. Rather than fighting it
off, he had embraced it. In his hotel room several hours before
the final, he had taken off a ring given to him by his father,
Bill, before his death in 1987, and placed it on the dresser.
Carl does this before all of his races, and he always says,
"Dad, I'll bring home a win for you." But on Saturday, the day
before Father's Day, Carl looked at the ring and said, "Dad,
tonight I'm going to run a race you'll be proud of."
His eyes watered late Saturday night as he leaned against a bare
concrete wall in the belly of the stadium and told that story,
and another one. Before the race, even as he had tried to ignore
his cramps, his introduction brought a roar from the crowd of
21,597. Lewis had heard cheers before, but this time, he said,
it was different. The years washed over him and with them came
his emotions. "I almost cried as I was getting into my blocks,"
he said. "To me, my race was won right there."
Joyner-Kersee's struggle in the heptathlon should not have come
as a complete surprise, either. Even though she is the most
accomplished multievent athlete in history (two Olympic gold
medals and two world championships), she hadn't competed in a
heptathlon in a year and hadn't scored more than 7,000 points,
the benchmark of her prime, since the 1992 Games.
On Saturday night she took a 116-point lead over Blair into the
800 meters, the final event, but ran a time 8.57 seconds slower
than Blair's. When the scores were calculated, Blair ended up
three points ahead. It was a sweet finish for Blair, a high
school valedictorian from the south-central Washington town of
Prosser and the 1993 NCAA champion at Oregon, who earlier
Saturday had fouled on her first two long jump attempts and thus
had been one jump from falling out of the competition altogether.
For Joyner-Kersee the most telling fact was her point total of
6,403, her second-lowest since 1983. As she staggered through
the 800 meters, her asthma seemed about to kick in. Each
heptathlon has become a medical drama for Joyner-Kersee, and she
gives many signs of a great athlete at the end of a career. But
her husband-coach, Bobby Kersee, couldn't disagree more with
that assessment. "There's nothing physically wrong with Jackie,"
said Kersee. "She had technical problems and left points all
over that stadium."
Gwen Torrence seemed impervious to pressure, heat, humidity,
hardness of the track and even the sausages and cheese eggs she
ate for breakfast on Saturday. Running in her hometown as an
overwhelming favorite, she cruised through the 100 meters,
overtaking the defending Olympic gold medalist in the event,
Gail Devers, to win in 10.82. That matched her personal best and
was the year's fastest clocking.
Much later in the night, with the 200-meter qualifying still
five days ahead of her, Torrence considered her Sunday schedule.
There was one easy decision: She would attend services at the
Mount Patmos Baptist Church in Decatur rather than a press
conference to be put on by her shoe company, Nike. "She's going
to worship the Lord instead of the swoosh," said one of her
The way these trials were going? By all means pray. Ask for