Pure speed is his gift. Tim Montgomery knew it early, when as a little boy he would get up from watching cartoons and sprint laps around his family's yard in Gaffney, S.C., during commercials, tearing up the rich earth with his strides and returning to the couch before programming resumed. "I could feel that wind blowing in my face," says Montgomery. "All my life I've been running fast."
Last Saturday before a crowd of 7.000 on a gorgeous evening in Paris, Montgomery ran 100 meters faster than any other man in history. His time of 9.78 seconds in the IAAF Grand Prix Final broke by .01 of a second compatriot Maurice Greene's 1999 world record and made him the favorite for the 2003 world championships back in Paris and the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
It was a stunning performance, a marriage of talent, opportunity and execution. At the close of a long, cathartic summer in which Montgomery, 27, has hunted down both Greene and Britain's vastly improved Dwain Chambers, he put together the race of his life. It began with a breathtaking start. Montgomery's reaction to the gun was officially recorded as .104 of a second; anything faster than .100 is a false start. "At 30 meters there was no one beside me," said Montgomery, who had a tailwind of 2.0 meters per second (about 4-5 mph), the maximum allowable for world marks. "I thought I'd dig in deeper, and I just ran, ran, ran. I knew I would get Maurice's record someday."
We should have seen the record coming. Montgomery has long had one of the sprint world's fastest top-end velocities (runner talk for peak speed). His potential showed itself occasionally, like Waldo's face in the crowd. At 19 he ran a 9.96 that was disallowed because of an illegal wind gauge, and three years later he went 9.94 to finish third behind Greene and 1996 Olympic champion Donovan Bailey of Canada at the '97 worlds in Athens.
He often struggled, because there is more to great sprinting than swift feet. He has twice won Olympic relay medals for running in early rounds (not finals) but has never qualified for an Olympic 100 meters. At the '97 worlds he was part of a botched baton pass that got the U.S. 4x100 relay team disqualified. In 1999 he failed to break 10 seconds all season. Montgomery had become lazy about his training, and the natural speed that usually sustained him was withering. "I know I'm faster than these guys," he said that summer. "I just have to learn to beat them."
Enter Trevor Graham, the intense former Jamaican Olympian who since 1997 has coached the incomparable Marion Jones and several other sprinters in Raleigh. In the spring of '99 Graham approached Montgomery at a meet in New York and told him, "No way you should be running this slow."
"Help me," said Montgomery, and in late '99 he moved to Raleigh. Graham hooked Montgomery up with a nutritionist and put him on a weight program for the first time in his career. Montgomery went from 140 pounds to 155 on a 5'10" frame, still slight for a sprinter but a vast improvement. He trained hard every day for the first time. "Cold, snow, rain—we're out there," he says.
Graham retooled Montgomery's form, keeping him lower out of the blocks and teaching him to break his race into four stages, as Greene does: start, drive phase, transition, maintenance. "Tim is a technician," says Jones. In the summer of 2001 the teaching took hold. Montgomery ran a 9.84 in Oslo and narrowly lost to Greene at the world championships in Edmonton.
There is little left for Montgomery this season, but much in his future. He and Jones have grown close, and on Saturday they shared a kiss at the finish line. Life is good. The swiftest child in Gaffney is now the fastest man in the world.