Memo to aspiring U.S. 400-meter sprinters, men and women alike: Run very fast if you plan on making an Olympic or world championship team in the next decade or so. Or find another event.
First came Sanya Richards, 20, floating gracefully down the homestretch in Carson, Calif., last Saturday to win the national championship in the 400 in 49.28 seconds, equaling the third-fastest time in history by an American and towing 22-year-olds Dee Dee Trotter and Monique Henderson under 50 seconds too. Never before had three U.S. women broken 50 seconds in the same 400-meter race.
Fifteen minutes later 2004 Olympic gold medalist Jeremy Wariner, 21, recovered from a stumbling start to win the men's 400 in 44.20, the fastest time in the world this year. He was followed across the line by former Baylor teammate and 2005 NCAA champion Darold Williamson, 22, and Andrew Rock, 23, a two-time NCAA Division III champ. LaShawn Merritt, who turned 19 two days after the race and last year was in high school, took fourth and will probably be named to the 4√ó400-meter-relay team for the August world championships in Helsinki.
To review: Seven athletes, average age 21.3 years, all now ranked in the top five in the world. "This is like the old days," said Los Angeles--based sprint coach John Smith, a star quarter-miler in the 1970s. "It all goes in cycles."
After Michael Johnson's retirement in September 2001, U.S. quarter-milers went into a down cycle. Performances reached their nadir in 2001, when Americans were shut out of the medals at the worlds in Edmonton. Among many hypotheses for the collapse, the most popular was that Johnson's dominance had driven other talented sprinters away.
In 2001 Wariner and Williamson were rising Texas high school stars, Rock was running in obscurity as a freshman at Wisconsin--La Crosse, and Merritt was a high school freshman in Virginia. Now they are storming the event as one. "It's great to have a bunch of young guys coming up at the same time," says Wariner. "It makes you keep working because nobody is going away."
Richards, who emigrated from Jamaica at age 12, turned pro a year ago, after her sophomore year at Texas. She was sixth in the Olympic 400 and ran the third leg on the gold-medal-winning 4√ó400-relay team. Last fall she began training with Baylor coach Clyde Hart, who had been Johnson's coach and also coaches Wariner and Williamson.
"She executed her race to perfection," said Johnson, who is now the agent for Wariner and Williamson. "Darold and Jeremy didn't. They could learn from Sanya. But look, they're all young, and they're all still learning."
Let the Scrutiny Begin
Under normal circumstances Lisa Barber's surprise win in the 100 meters at the nationals would make a sweet story. Barber (right), 24, was seldom healthy enough to effectively run the 100 or 200 at South Carolina. ("Hamstrings," she says. "Every year.") But last fall she changed coaches and suddenly found herself. From a personal best of 11.35 seconds three years ago, she has improved to 11.05 this spring, and she easily won the national title over runner-up Muna Lee and 2004 Olympic silver medalist Lauryn Williams.
The circumstances, however, are not normal. Barber's new coach is the controversial Trevor Graham, who initiated the BALCO scandal by sending a THG-laced syringe to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in 2003. At least five Graham-coached athletes have been suspended for drug violations, and others, including Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, have been implicated in the scandal.
Working with Graham subjects any athlete to increased public suspicion. Barber says people in the sport warned her that Graham's reputation would affect hers. "I heard that a lot," she says. "I haven't done any drugs. And I know what I won't do. I told Trevor, 'Despite everything, I'm coming to work hard.' That's all he wants."