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 unprepared.
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 completed.
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 him.
"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.