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M-M-M Good! The world's three greatest sprinters transformed the U.S. track and field trials into the Maurice, Michael and Marion Show

July 24, 2000
July 24, 2000

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July 24, 2000

M-M-M Good! The world's three greatest sprinters transformed the U.S. track and field trials into the Maurice, Michael and Marion Show

Late last Saturday, with the darkness of the Sacramento night
filling a window behind him, Maurice Greene collapsed into a
chair in his hotel suite. Around him the room was littered with
water bottles, pieces of fruit and videotapes of his races, the
detritus of an athlete leaving nothing to chance. On the inside
of the door was a sign that Greene had made on his computer back
in Los Angeles and printed in bold red ink: MAURICE GREENE, 2000
OLYMPIAN. It was the last thing he had seen before leaving his
suite that afternoon to win the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic
Track and Field Trials. Now he stretched his thick legs as far
as they would reach and raised his arms toward the ceiling.
"U.S. Olympian," he said, testing the title. "This is the best
there is."

This is an article from the July 24, 2000 issue Original Layout

Now he understands. They all understand. There is little in U.S.
sports quite like the track and field trials, a quadrennial
crucible that selects three people in each event and dashes the
hopes of hundreds of others. The trials send the likes of
Greene, Marion Jones and Michael Johnson to the outsized glory
that awaits them at the Games. The eight days of competition
identify precocious warriors like 21-year-old Stanford miler
Gabe Jennings and reward the dogged spirit of runners like
1,500-meter qualifier Marla Runyan, who is not only gifted but
also legally blind. Yet the trials also coldly dismiss Jeff
Hartwig and Tisha Waller, the best men's pole vaulter and
women's high jumper in America. They halt comebacks such as
Jackie Joyner-Kersee's without regard to past greatness, leaving
her sixth in the long jump. The trials make people understand
how precious it is to survive, to just make the team.

Four years ago, at the trials in Atlanta, Greene was eliminated
in the quarterfinals of the 100. He was too young, too skinny
and--with an injury to his right hamstring--too hurt. A month
later he drove from his home in Kansas City, Kans., to Atlanta
to see the Games. He cried as he sat in the stands watching
Canada's Donovan Bailey win the 100 in a world-record 9.84
seconds.

Greene moved to L.A., changed coaches, won two world titles and
in June 1999 ran 9.79 to crush Bailey's mark. But until last
weekend he still was not an Olympian. After running a 9.93 for
an easy victory in Friday's opening round, Greene recovered from
a wobbly start in Saturday's final to overtake his training
partner Jon Drummond and win in 10.01 seconds into a stiff
headwind, dragging Drummond and another teammate, Curtis
Johnson, onto the Olympic team with him. Greene cried again
after the race, with Drummond, with coach John Smith, with his
father, Ernest Greene, in a skybox overlooking the track. "It
all started in '96," said Ernest. "That's when he understood how
much it meant to him."

Jones can relate. She was at the '96 Games too, sitting in the
stands, a college basketball star at North Carolina watching her
future husband, C.J. Hunter, compete in the shot put and seeing
women she once had stomped win medals. "It was tough to watch,"
said Jones, who'd been running only part time since '93 while
concentrating on hoops. "It made me miss it."

Her stirrings were even older than Greene's. In 1992, Jones was
a junior at Thousand Oaks High, north of Los Angeles, and one of
the best high school sprinters in history. She went to the
trials that summer in New Orleans and nearly made the team,
finishing fifth in the 100 and fourth in the 200. She was
invited to join the U.S. team for Barcelona as part of the relay
pool, which would have all but guaranteed her a medal, but she
declined. "When people come over to my house to see my gold
medals, I want to be able to say I ran for them," Jones says of
her decision, the implication being that she probably would have
run in the early relay rounds but not in the finals. Her gutsy
step-aside has become a part of Mrs. Jones's legend.

Yet the story may not be completely accurate. While there's no
doubting how Jones feels--she surely does want to be able to say
that she earned her first gold medal (as well as the other four
she hopes to bring home from Sydney)--her mother, Marion Toler,
who raised Jones as a single parent, says Jones wanted to go to
Barcelona as a relay alternate. It was Toler who said no. "We
had an agreement that we made before the school year began,"
said Toler last week in Sacramento. "There was a list of
conditions that Marion had to meet, including grades, behavior,
respect for her coaches. If she didn't meet all these
conditions, she wouldn't be allowed to go to the Olympics, and
she did not meet all of them. [Toler says that grades were a
factor, though not the only one.] Before the trials I told her
that if she finished in the top three, she could go, but if it
was a relay situation, and there was some decision to be made,
she would stay home. She was not happy. She wanted to go."

The dream, then, was eight years old when Jones, now a two-time
100-meter world champion like Greene, swept down the track last
Saturday, cutting a headwind in 10.88 seconds (her nonaltitude
best is 10.70), far clear of Inger Miller (11.05) and Chryste
Gaines (11.13). Past the finish she threw her arms into the air,
feeling an even greater joy than she had expected.

Less than 24 hours later Jones earned a place on the U.S. team
in the long jump with a performance that underscored her
toughness. After fouling on her first two jumps, she needed a
legal leap of at least 20' 11 1/4" (her season's best coming
into the trials was 22' 10 1/2") on her third attempt to advance
to the final three jumps. Another foul, or anything short of
that distance, and Jones was gone, along with her plans for five
golds. Under enormous pressure, performing in a stadium packed
to capacity of more than 23,000, Jones, an inartistic jumper at
the best of times, survived on athleticism and desire, jumping
22' 1 3/4" to move into fourth place. Two attempts later she
went 23' 1/2", her best jump in two years, and won the event. In
the warmup area Michael Johnson watched on television. "Man, she
cut it close," he said, "but she's a competitor. That's what
showed today."

What Johnson showed on Sunday was his dominance of the 400
meters. He chose not to chase his year-old world record of 43.18
in gusty winds, yet he still ran a controlled 43.68 (a time
bettered by only two other runners in history) to win by almost
a second over Alvin Harrison. Eight years ago in New Orleans,
after Johnson had earned his first Olympic berth, at 200 meters,
he went back to his hotel room and jumped up and down on the bed
shouting, "I made the Olympic team!" Though he's had phenomenal
success since then--he won gold medals in the 200 and 400 in
Atlanta and holds world records in both events--his respect for
making the Olympic team has not diminished.

"I didn't jump up and down on my bed this time," said Johnson on
Sunday night, "but it's still special. To everybody else, me
making the team is a foregone conclusion, but I know things can
go wrong."

Just ask Hartwig. Ranked No. 2 in the world last year behind
Maksim Tarasov of Russia, Hartwig, 32, came to Sacramento only a
month after clearing a U.S. record 19' 9 1/4", the highest vault
in the world in 2000, yet last Friday night he failed in three
attempts at his opening height of 18' 2 1/2" and found himself
out of the competition. He blamed his failure in part on
Sacramento's parched air, which he says caused his contact
lenses to dry out and affected his depth perception. "I can't
put into words how bad I feel," Hartwig said.

Runyan could have met an equally disappointing fate. She ran in
the world championships 1,500 last summer and seemed likely to
become the first legally blind athlete to make a U.S. Olympic
team. But on June 9 she strained the iliotibial band (a tendon
that runs from the hip to the knee) in her left leg and didn't
train for a month. She resumed running only six days before the
trials, and her coach, Mike Manley, nudged her confidence by
letting her do a series of 200-meter sprints to prove that her
sharpness wasn't gone. "She was supposed to do them in 31
seconds, but she ran 28s," Manley said. On Sunday, Runyan ran
third, five seconds behind the one-two finish of Regina Jacobs
and Suzy Favor Hamilton--both of whom have a good shot at a
medal in Sydney. Shortly afterward Runyan fell into the arms of
boyfriend Matt Lonergan and told him, "I didn't believe it could
happen."

The free-spirited Jennings, who was born on Steve Prefontaine's
birthday in 1979 and raised in a remote cabin in Northern
California, didn't just believe his 1,500-meter victory could
happen. He knew it would, from the tears of joy he cried three
hours before the race and from the life in his legs during a
light morning run. "It's my day," he told Stanford coach Vin
Lananna. Jennings took the lead with a burst more than 500
meters from the finish, running not only to the rhythm he hears
in his head, but also to the drums and homemade percussion
instruments being pounded in the stands by a ragtag group of
supporters that included Jennings's father, Jim, and mother,
Suzanne.

Nine months ago, Jennings's mere presence at the trials seemed a
remote possibility. With his career stalled by injuries,
Jennings began to question his motives and his goals. He
couldn't sleep. "He called me at four in the morning, and he was
almost on the edge of something like a nervous breakdown," says
Jennings's father, recalling a night late last fall. "He was
questioning why he ran."

Jim and Suzanne drove five hours from Mendocino, Calif., to Palo
Alto to be with their son. "He needed to get everything off his
chest, so he could celebrate running again," says Jim. From that
low point, Gabe rebounded. He won the NCAA 1,500 in June and on
Sunday ran 3:35.90, a personal best by nearly two seconds. In
Sydney he may need a similar improvement just to make the final
against the best runners from Africa and Europe, but in
Sacramento, there was no denying the strides he had already taken.

"I've enjoyed every race on every day this spring," Jennings
said outside the stadium on Sunday, surrounded by family and
band. "Every day is a different rhythm."

Expect a crash of cymbals this Sunday when Greene and Johnson
meet in the 200-meter final. It's a race that has been
anticipated since Johnson was injured and had to pull out of the
1999 national championships in Eugene, sending Greene and his
teammates on a mission to trash-talk him into oblivion. Greene
has repeatedly accused Johnson of ducking him; Johnson has
repeatedly called Greene "immature."

They are dramatically different personalties. Greene is
ebullient and emotional, 26 going on 19. Johnson, 32, is grimly
confident and serious. The two haven't had a conversation since
early 1998, when they killed time during the shooting of a
commercial by trading stories about mutual nemesis Bailey.
Johnson holds the 200 world record of 19.32, set at the '96
Games; Greene's best is 19.86. Last week both men simmered in
anticipation of their showdown.

"I will win, period," said Greene. "First, Michael Johnson is
the world-record holder, but he hasn't run anything close to
that time in four years. Second, he's not strong enough to
finish with me in a sprint. He'll have to be three or four steps
in front coming off the curve or it's over, and that's not going
to happen. It'll be close, and Michael Johnson breaks his form
and falls apart in close races. I never break form."

These words were relayed to Johnson as he lay on a rubbing table
in his hotel room on Sunday night. He nodded and his eyes
widened. "That is exactly what Carl Lewis said about me in 1992
when I got lane 8 at the Olympic trials--that I would break," he
said. "I won that race. Break in close races? Tell Maurice to
look at the '92 trials, or the '97 400-meter final at the world
championships, when I was hurt and five meters down with 100
meters to go and won the race on experience and heart. He won't
feel so good about himself then."

Johnson dropped his chin off the edge of the table as a
therapist rubbed oil into his lower legs. This weekend the
trials' rules change. For two men in one race, just making the
team will not be enough.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES STEPPING OUT Four years after failing at his first Olympic trials, Greene dominated the field to win the 100 and a trip to Sydney.COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY PIT OF THE STOMACH After her third jump Jones looked for the signal--no foul, said the judge--that saved her from elimination.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO FLYING FINISHES With a blistering last lap, Jacobs outran Favor Hamilton in the 1,500; Jones (opposite) breezed in the 100.COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY [See caption above]
Once across the finish line of the 100, Jones threw her arms
into the air, feeling an even greater joy than she had expected.