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One night when he was three years old, Roger Kingdom watched a Western in which a number of unsavory hombres got strung up. The next morning, his curiosity piqued, Roger climbed up on a windowsill, wrapped the cord from a Venetian blind around his neck and jumped. Luckily, he was not as good at tying knots as he was at giving his mother fits. Alerted by the screams of her other children, Christine Kingdom rushed into the room and found Roger on the floor with the Venetian blind and its supports on top of him. He was dazed but grinning.
"He was a child you would never dare," says Christine, "because whatever you dared him to do, he'd go right out and do it."
Twenty-three years later, Kingdom, the 1984 Olympic champion in the 110-meter hurdles and the favorite to win again in Seoul, remains, as he says, daring: "I'm reckless. At any given moment in a hurdles race, I'm capable of trying something different, trying to step down a little quicker or to bring my trail leg through faster. Anything to enhance performance."
The 6'1�", 195-pound Kingdom goes to Seoul with expectations different from those he took to Los Angeles. As a University of Pittsburgh junior at the '84 U.S. trials, he had to match his personal best of 13.36 seconds to finish third and make the team. Ahead of him were two veterans, Greg Foster, who won the trials and was the strong favorite at the Games, and Tonie Campbell. Most experts picked Kingdom to bring home the bronze.
In the final in L.A., Kingdom charged from behind, caught Foster at the 10th and last hurdle and beat him to the tape by .03. The finish was so close even Kingdom didn't know he had won. While shaking hands with Campbell, he said something about finishing second.
"You didn't finish second," said Campbell, who was fifth. "You won it."
The road from surprise Olympic champion in 1984 to favorite in 1988 has not been smooth. First there were the whispers that his gold medal race was a fluke. Never mind that his 13.20 had set an Olympic record. A lot of people believed that Kingdom had not so much won the race as Foster had lost it. NO. 2 FINISH FOR NO. 1 HURDLER read the headline in The New York Times. Kingdom answered those questions by earning the No. 1 world ranking for 1984 and '85, and lowering his best to 13.14.
Then, during a race in Nice on July 16, 1985, he suffered a severe hamstring pull. Thus began 2� years of frustration. "I committed a cardinal sin," Kingdom says. "I just let the injury go [untreated]. I was frustrated. I tried to get away from track and field." When he did return to hurdling the next year, he discovered that the hamstring, which had healed for the purposes of walking and jogging, was as bad as ever for competition. "I tried to come back too quickly three or four times, and I reinjured it," he says.
In 1986 Kingdom's world ranking fell to fourth. The next year was even more disappointing: He was not even ranked among the top 10 Americans.
It wasn't until late 1987 that he got serious about rehabilitating the hamstring. Two things spurred him on. "I was watching the World Championships on television," he recalls. "The commentators started talking about Roger Kingdom and saying, 'Where's the guy been?' "