Lennox Miller first saw his little girl run fast—really fast—during an eighth-grade field day. Oh, he already knew she was quick. He had seen that in little kids' soccer games and when she ran down the street in front of the family's home in the San Gabriel foothills north of downtown Pasadena. But this was different. The race started, and Inger Miller just ran away from the others, blurring across the green lawn of the Westridge Girls School with pigtails flying behind her like braided vapor trails. "The picture is so clear in my mind," Lennox says. "She separated herself from all the other girls. Her stride rate was just outstanding."
Understand, the man was no easy sell. Lennox Miller won two Olympic 100-meter medals while competing for Jamaica, where sprinting is not merely a sport, but a passion. As a father he would not be easily impressed by a little kid with good wheels. Yet after watching Inger race that day, he told friends back home in the Caribbean, "My daughter is going to be a great runner. If she wants to, she's going to go far."
Fifteen years later, at age 28, Inger Miller is among the best sprinters in the world. Last summer she won the 200 meters at the world championships in Seville, and only three women in history have run faster times for both the 100 and the 200. She is almost certain to make her second Olympic team at the U.S. track and field trials starting July 14 in Sacramento, and to challenge for gold medals in three events (the 100, 200 and 4 x 100 relay) in Sydney in September.
She has made her father a prophet: The girl is a great runner. But the question that remains is how far she will go. Olympic stars are chosen long before the Games begin. They are anointed, packaged and positioned for wealth and fame on the assumption that they wall win gold medals. Perhaps no female athlete in history has been more aggressively marketed than the expected star of the 2000 Games, Miller's rival, Marion Jones. NBC president Dick Ebersol has said mat his network will cover Jones's attempt to win an unprecedented five track and field gold medals "like a miniseries." Jones has been profiled in publications ranging from SI to Rolling Stone to Vogue. She preaches in her own series of Nike commercials, playing ultracool deejay Mrs. Jones, ending each with the signature line, "Can you dig it?"
Miller is definitely not diggin' it. She will bring a serious Marion Jones jones to the trials and, she hopes, to Sydney. "It shouldn't be as if no one else is even competing in her races," says Miller. "It's not like Marion Jones is Superwoman and everyone else is poultry."
Miller is sitting on a concrete wall that abuts the running track at UCLA, wearing wraparound shades. "Hey, all the publicity that [ Jones] brings to the sport is great for all of us, but people bring her name up to me, and here's what I mink: I'm the best sprinter in the world. I know I'm going to win. The media want to have a story, and they've found her. Well, it will make for an even better story when those five gold medals don't come to be."
Miller's manager at Los Angeles-based HSI, Emanuel Hudson, puts it another way: "If Dick Ebersol wants to make Marion Jones a miniseries, that's his gamble. Just think of Inger Miller as one of those characters who throws a twist into the plot in the second night."
Many women chase Jones, but it is Miller who is closest, and for whom the pursuit is most personal. It was Miller who, in 1990 as a senior at Muir High in Pasadena, beat Jones, then a freshman at Rio Mesa in Oxnard, in both the 100 and 200 meters at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational high school meet in Southern California and was told by a meet official, "It's a good thing you beat her now, because I don't think you'll ever beat her again." (Miller hasn't, but recalling her defeat of Jones at Arcadia, she says, "She wasn't very cordial after getting beat by me.") It also was Miller whose sensational performance last summer at the world championships was marked by a Jones-related asterisk. There, Miller started talking smack and hasn't stopped since.
She lowered her personal record in the 100 from 10.96 to 10.86 in the second round of the worlds and then to 10.79 in the final, but still lost by several yards to Jones, who ran 10.70. Even so, Miller then sat next to Jones at the press conference in Estadio Olimpico and said, "It's not a one-woman show anymore." Five days later, with Jones sidelined by a back injury that would end her season, Miller dropped her 200-meter best from 22.10 to 21.77, a stunning improvement that sent Miller bounding and high-stepping in celebration.
"After the 100 it was all Marion, Marion. Marion," said Miller. "Then she gets hurt, and people are saying, 'Oh well, I guess Inger Miller will win now' Well, Inger Miller would have won the race even if she was there." (Note: It is rare to hear Miller use Jones's name, just as it is rare to hear Jones use any of her pursuers' names; usually Jones keeps them tented under the collective "my competitors.")