"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�, the highest vault in the world in 2000, yet last Friday night he failed in three attempts at his opening height of 18'2�" 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."