The 30-year-old Thompson knows something of pressure. But Steve Lewis, 19, who will become a UCLA sophomore when he returns from Seoul, was an Olympic innocent. The night before the final of the 400 meters, he revealed the tenderness of his age when he asked a friend, "What's oxygen debt?"
"Running your first 200 in 20.5," said the friend. "Don't do it."
But in UCLA sprint coach John Smith, Lewis had an experienced adviser. In 1972 at the Munich Games, Smith and his former UCLA teammate Wayne Collett took their marks for the 400-meter final. Smith made it through 80 meters before suffering a severe hamstring pull that ended the race for him. Collett finished second to U.S. teammate Vince Matthews.
On Wednesday, two current UCLA quartermilers. Lewis and Danny Everett, 21, took their marks for the Olympic 400-meter final. Both are coached by Smith. "I'd never really talked about my plight in '72," says Smith. "But as they heard about it from others, they began to sense what was driving me to share what I've learned in those years."
Lewis drew Lane 6. Everett was in 4, and 24-year-old Butch Reynolds, the world-record holder, was in 3, where he could keep an eye on them. Everett went out hard and Lewis moved with smooth power on the backstretch. Even through the last turn Reynolds lagged. "The hope," said Smith, "was that when he looked up, it would be too late."
"I got too confident." Reynolds admitted after the race.
Entering the stretch six meters behind, Reynolds finally began a desperate sprint. He caught Everett with 20 meters to go, but Lewis, the tenderfoot, ran smoothly and poised all the way to the tape. When Reynolds's lunge fell short, Lewis had won in 43.87 to Reynolds's 43.93 and Everett's 44.09. "We stood and looked at the replay on the scoreboard," said Smith. "When Steve saw that he had won, he said, 'That one is for you, Coach.' "
Tears ran down Smith's face. "I held it in for 16 years," he said.
Three days later the three U.S. 400-meter medalists, joined by Kevin Robinzine, set out to break the oldest running record, the 2:56.16 set by Matthews, Lee Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman in the 4 X 400 relay at Mexico City.
Everett began with a strong 44.0, and then Lewis blew to a huge lead with 43.6. After Robinzine ran a steady 44.7. Reynolds knew he had a shot. "The hardest part is that an anchor runs by himself." he said. "I gave it all I had. But I should have tried harder."