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Back on Track
Tim Layden
September 06, 1999
After three years marred by injury and controversy, Michael Johnson blazed to the fore again with a stunning record at the world championships
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September 06, 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

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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.

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 4 x 100-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 Maria 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 show-downs 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."

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