At the World Track and Field Championships in Paris on Sunday, California's Kelli White ran like the seasoned champion she wasn't and reveled like the novice victor she was. After winning the 100 meters in 10.85 seconds—the year's fastest time—the 26-year-old White skipped, jumped and spun around clockwise, then spun in the other direction, trying to figure out how to channel her euphoria. "I'm not used to celebrating like that," she said.
White's exuberance brought some welcome life to the sprints, which had been in the doldrums all year. With Olympic champion Marion Jones absent while having a baby and men's stars Maurice Greene and Tim Montgomery off form, 100-meter times had been slow, and the Paris sprints looked wide open.
Indeed, on Monday night Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis was the surprise winner of the men's 100, running a 10.07 to edge Darrel Brown of Trinidad by .01 in the slowest world or Olympic final since 1983-World-record holder Montgomery, the top U.S. finisher, was fifth in 10.11. It was the first time since 1995 that an American had failed to win the men's 100 at the Worlds and perhaps a sign of things to come at next year's Athens Olympics. "[Sprinting has] come out of an era of domination," said U.S. sprint coach Harvey Glance. "It has moved into one that mirrors the '60s and '70s, when we never knew who was going to win."
Greene had scratched from the semifinals with soreness in his tendinitis-plagued right knee. Montgomery was not in top form either. He arrived in Paris, by his own admission, as "a basket case" after two dismal performances on the European circuit, which he blamed on an allergic reaction to peanuts. "When something like that takes over your body," he said, "it's out of your control."
White had no such problems—only the specter of Jones hanging over her, almost literally. Jones, Montgomery's girlfriend, who gave birth to their first child, Tim Jr., on June 28, was in the stands beyond the finish line doing TV commentary for Eurosport, and she was cheered each time her face appeared on the scoreboard. Talk of Jones seemed to irk White two days before the women's final, when she was asked if the sport was suffering from Jones's absence. "Does the sport have feelings?" White asked. "We want to prove that we can do just as well as Marion. We haven't been given our due lately."
Jones, 27, agreed with that assessment "I won't be around forever in this sport," she told SI on Saturday. "It's rime we appreciate other great U.S. sprinters."
White has been on the track since childhood, when her mother, Debra, a relay runner on the 1972 Jamaican Olympic team, used to bring her to workouts. Kelli's father, Willie, was a talented U.S. high school runner. Kelli was following in her parents' cleat steps as a high school junior in Union City, Calif., in 1994 when a random attacker, who was never caught, stabbed her in the face while she waited for a train. "The doctor stopped counting at 300 stitches," says White, who still sports a scar above her left eye. "I'm lucky to be alive."
She went on to Tennessee, where she never won an NCAA or SEC title. This spring, determined to improve, she added 13 pounds of muscle while giving her right foot—which had been plagued by plantar fasciitis for more than a year—time to heal, then won both the 100 and the 200 at the U.S. nationals in June.
"I used to doubt myself, but I knew it was somebody's time," White said last week at the world championships. "Why not mine?"