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Back On Track After three years marred by injury and controversy, Michael Johnson blazed to the fore again with a stunning record at the world championships

Sept. 06, 1999
Sept. 06, 1999

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Sept. 6, 1999

Back On Track After three years marred by injury and controversy, Michael Johnson blazed to the fore again with a stunning record at the world championships

He lay sprawled on the track in twilight, his chest rapidly
rising and falling like a sleeping infant's. On the infield
grass a clock illuminated 43.18 in yellow, along with the simple
message NEW W.R. Michael Johnson stared at a darkening Spanish
sky and at a full moon above the Seville Olympic Stadium, and
then he ended a decade's pursuit of that 400-meter record and
three years of injury and frustration with one crooked smile.

This is an article from the Sept. 6, 1999 issue Original Layout

Johnson had come to Seville for the seventh world track and
field championships in the unaccustomed role of bit player. The
stage for this prelude to the 2000 Sydney Games would belong to
others and not to a 31-year-old whose double-gold-medal
performance, in the 200 and 400, in Atlanta was a shining moment
in track and field history. Johnson's star, though, seemed to
have dimmed with each passing season since then.

Instead, the spotlight would belong to Maurice Greene, who, sure
enough, became the first man to win both the 100 and 200 at the
worlds and anchored the U.S. men's 4x100-meter relay team to its
first world championship or Olympic gold medal since 1993. It
would belong to Inger Miller, an American-born daughter of
Jamaican Olympian Lennox Miller, whose scorching 21.77 in
winning the 200 made people almost forget the absence of the
injured Marion Jones. It would belong to 1,500 champion Hicham
El Guerrouj of Morocco, fast establishing himself as the finest
middle-distance runner in history. In a more inspirational way,
it belonged to 35-year-old Swedish hurdler Lyudmila Engquist,
who took home a bronze medal in the women's 100 hurdles four
months after having a mastectomy--she is undergoing chemotherapy
and is scheduled to have her next treatment this week--and to
U.S. runner Marla Runyan, who reached the final of the women's
1,500 despite being legally blind.

But in the end the spotlight in Seville belonged--surprisingly--
to Johnson. His world record in the 400, which broke Butch
Reynolds's 11-year-old record of 43.29 (which had snapped a
two-decade-old mark), gave Johnson his sixth individual world
championship gold medal, and it was redolent of his surpassing
19.32 record in the 200 in Atlanta. Johnson's performance in
Seville was all the more remarkable considering that as recently
as three weeks earlier he was actually considering retirement.

In early August, Johnson drove the 90-plus miles from his home
in Dallas to Baylor, his alma mater, in Waco to brainstorm with
his coach, Clyde Hart, and to train in the bludgeoning Texas
heat. It's a drive that Johnson has made hundreds of times in
the last decade, but this visit was different. "When he walked
into my office that day, Michael was at a lower point,
physically and mentally, than I'd ever seen him," says Hart. "He
was very, very down."

It had been a long, downward spiral from Atlanta. In June 1997,
Johnson injured his left quadriceps in the disastrous 150-meter
World's Fastest Human match race with Canadian 100-meter Olympic
gold medalist Donovan Bailey and pulled up 70 meters from the
finish line. Afterwards Bailey accused Johnson of quitting to
save face, a charge that was echoed by much of the media. He put
himself back together to win the world 400 title in Athens that
summer, but much of the season was lost to the injury that he
had in fact suffered in the match race. His '98 campaign was
similarly undercut by injuries.

This year began with a promising 20.07 for 200 meters at an
obscure meet in May in France, and track fans anticipated
showdowns in the 200 between Johnson and Greene at the U.S.
ProChampionships on June 13 in Uniondale, N.Y., and the national
championships on June 27 in Eugene, Ore. Neither matchup came
off. Johnson missed the first because of the death of his
grandmother, but his pullout at the second proved more
troublesome. Training on the afternoon before the first round of
the 200 at the nationals, Johnson felt a twinge in his right
quadriceps. On the advice of his physical therapist, Dale Smith,
he pulled out of the race. Greene's manager, Emanuel Hudson, all
but accused Johnson of ducking Greene. It didn't help that
Johnson sent his agent, Brad Hunt, and Hart to Hayward Field to
deliver the news of his withdrawal instead of doing so himself.

Johnson saw criticism coming. "As soon as I got hurt in Eugene,
my first thought was, The media is going to bring up Toronto
again," he said after his win in Seville. "But what could I do?
What if I ran against Maurice and got injured badly right in the
middle of the race, and I had to stop? Then it would have been
worse. What if I had a press conference and blew up when Toronto
was mentioned? I was in a no-win situation." Johnson had brought
his wife, Kerry, his parents and his brothers and sisters to
Eugene. The pullout was crushing to him.

He rested for four days. About a week after Eugene, he ran the
400 in Lausanne in a 43.92. Five days after that, he ran to a
19.93 clocking in the 200 meters in Rome, becoming the first
runner to do a sub-44 and a sub-20 in the same week. Instead of
bringing him praise, these performances were invoked by the
media as evidence that he hadn't been hurt in Eugene. "That
really hurt," Johnson said. "My whole career I've taken on
challenges, and now I'm accused of ducking."

On his second trip to Europe, in late July, his right hamstring
flared, causing him to pull up 150 meters into a 400 in
Stockholm. At that moment most observers wrote him off for the
worlds and, possibly, for Sydney. Five days later he had that
meeting with Hart. "I'm sitting with Coach, and I tell him,
'This just isn't any fun right now. I've been getting injured
for three years, I'm getting criticized everywhere, plus all the
guys on the circuit are younger than me [read: no close
friends].'" The gravity of his words struck him. "I always said
I would stop when it wasn't fun," Johnson said, "but I hadn't
actually prepared for that time, for it to actually not be fun."

Hart listened and then spoke. "What was our goal this year?" he
asked Johnson.

"World record in the 400," Johnson answered.

Hart pointed at the watch on his left wrist. "There's still
time," he said.

Here's why: Even as Johnson has sustained injuries this year, he
has finally come to understand them. Through his work with
Smith, who now travels with Johnson and Hart, Johnson has
learned that most of his leg injuries are the result of hip
misalignments, which are exacerbated by his power. By shutting
down when he feels pain, Johnson prevents the type of serious
injury that he incurred in Toronto. After consulting with Hart,
Johnson skipped the Aug. 11 Zurich Grand Prix meet (and gave up
his approximately $100,000 appearance fee) to train in Waco.

Just before leaving for Seville, he produced one of the best
workouts of his life: three 350-meter sprints, each run in 44
seconds, with five minutes' rest between them. Upon arriving in
Spain, he ran two more 350s in an average of 43 seconds (the
second in a searing 42.6) in 100[degree] heat. "Faster than
before Atlanta, so fast I was scared," said Hart. With his body
fit, Johnson exercised his psyche by meeting a small group of
journalists before the start of the championships to clear the
air. It was entirely out of character and apparently liberating.
The Johnson who ran in Seville engaged media, fans and
volunteers as if he were the ebullient Greene. He bore little
resemblance to the sphinx who won in Atlanta.

He then ran the most startling 400 in history. By turning in a
blistering 43.95 in the semis despite shutting down 100 meters
from the finish, he raised expectations that he would break the
world record. He didn't disappoint. In the final he ran the
first 200 in a controlled 21 seconds flat, towing most of the
field with him. "Then, right after the 200, Michael just took
off," said U.S. runner Antonio Pettigrew, who was two lanes
inside Johnson, after the race. "He just ran away from us. It
was the most incredible thing I've ever seen."

While seven other runners clawed at the air, Johnson drew away
by 15 meters. When he crossed the line, the clock flashed 43.19
and then was adjusted downward by .01 of a second to reflect the
actual time. The second place finisher, Sanderlei Claro Parrela,
was more than a second behind. "He didn't even pull anybody
along because he was so far ahead," said Pettigrew. "If somebody
had been with him, he could've run 42.6, no doubt." Three days
later Johnson anchored the U.S. 4X400-meter relay to a gold
medal in the final event of the worlds, appropriately closing
the show.

Ninety minutes before Johnson's work was done, Greene finished
off one of the best performances in track and field history. He
had begun by winning the 100 in 9.80, a scant .01 of a second
off his world record. Five nights later, exhausted from grinding
through eight races in two events over seven nights, he
completed his unprecedented 100-200 double, taking the 200 in
19.90.

After winning his two individual golds, Greene faced the
challenge of trying to anchor the U.S. men to their first win in
a major 4x100 relay competition since the 1993 worlds. Last
Friday night he moved from the Occidental Sevilla hotel in
downtown Seville to the Alcora, on a bluff on the city's
outskirts, because that was where his U.S. relay
teammates--Brian Lewis, Tim Montgomery and Jon Drummond--were
staying. In plotting the team's strategy for the four-by-one,
coach George Williams told Greene to wait until Lewis, who would
be running the third leg, was nearly on him before taking off.
This would ensure that Greene wouldn't run away from Lewis,
resulting in an illegal pass or a baton drop. It would also mean
that Greene would take the stick long before reaching top speed
and would run about 110 meters. No sweat. Greene took the baton
dead even with Dwain Chambers of Great Britain and smoked him,
running a hand-timed 9.12 for his long split and putting an
exclamation mark on his weeklong performance. He was the only
athlete in Seville to win two individual golds or three overall.

Of the many athletes eclipsed at the worlds by Johnson and
Greene, it was Jones who suffered the biggest letdown. She came
to Spain as the It Girl, shooting for four gold medals (women's
100, 200, long jump and relay). Yet after winning the 100 and
taking the bronze in the long jump, she collapsed with back
spasms during a semifinal heat of the 200. Two days later Jones
and her husband, shot put gold medalist C.J. Hunter, left
Seville on a predawn flight, leaving urgent questions about her
readiness for the assault on five golds she had been expected to
mount in Sydney.

First, her form in the long jump remains poor, potentially even
injurious, yet she refuses to hire a coach for the event.
Second, her inexperienced management team--Hunter, agent Charley
Wells and coach Trevor Graham--is seemingly ill-equipped to deal
with setbacks, as evidenced by its inaction following the 200.
"Amateur hour," said one track official. Third, Jones probably
should have pulled out of the long jump and 200 in Seville. A
source told SI that Jones said she injured her back in the
semifinals of the 100, which took place before the long jump and
200. Even Jones's unquestioned talent isn't enough to overcome
injuries or poor counsel.

By contrast Johnson, the original track MJ, now has the entire
package, and he plans to defend his 200 and 400 titles in
Sydney. No man has repeated in either event, let alone both. As
Michael sat in a Seville hotel last weekend with Kerry, he was
juiced at the mention of 2000. "Say what you want about records
and world championships," he said. "There's nothing like the
Olympics."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY Fast feat Johnson's 43.18 in the 400 broke a mark that had stood for 11 years.COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Hat trick After winning the 100 and 200, Greene got his third gold by anchoring the U.S. team to victory in the 4x100 relay.COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Hello, Sydney At the 2000 Games, Johnson hopes to repeat as winner of the 200 and 400.
Green took the baton dead even with Dwain Chambers of Great
Britain and smoked him, running a hand-timed 9.12 for his long
split.
"Right after 200 meters, Johnson just took off and ran away from
us. It's the most incredible thing I've seen."