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Carl Lewis backed with precise movements into his blocks in the second lane of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum track as he prepared for the start of the Olympic track and field trials 100-meter final. His coach, Tom Tellez, watched from high in the stands. Tellez is tanned and laconic, the latter in contrast to the loquaciousness of his sprinter. But he knows Lewis so well that at moments such as this he's party to Lewis's tiniest neural patterns. "When the starter calls them to the set position," Tellez said, "Carl will rise until he feels a 90-degree angle in his front knee, and he'll put pressure on the back block. At the gun, all he thinks about is getting full extension off the front block. From there, it is just smooth acceleration. Fast, sure, but smooth. In sprinting you must run your own race. Get to maximum velocity and then stay relaxed and maintain it. If you can learn to trust your speed and not press, and let the faster starters come back to you, you're there, you're a sprinter. If you don't learn that...." He shrugged, the gesture eloquently saying there would be no hope. Then he leaned forward to see if any of Lewis's opponents could execute this cruelly simple maxim.
Those rivals composed the strongest sprint final since the days of Jim Hines and Charlie Greene in 1968. Beside Lewis, in Lane 1 was world-record holder (9.93 at altitude last summer) Calvin Smith, who had recovered just in time from a hamstring injury. On Lewis's other flank was Emmit King, the 1983 NCAA champion. In Lane 4 was Ron Brown, who had forsaken a year of pro football to be right where he crouched now. He will soon be playing for the Rams, whose coach, John Robinson, was watching. "He told me, 'Just think track. Football is next,' " said Brown. "I thought, this can be your last race, or this can be the start of something." He wore his Gucci watch—"because they say if you look good, you feel good." That theory hadn't worked. He still felt weak from two days of a stomach virus.
Beside Brown was Mel Lattany, who earlier this year had run the fastest 100 meters ever at sea level, 9.96, in Athens, Ga. In Lane 6 was Harvey Glance. He felt isolated out there. "I would have liked to have been a little nearer Lewis," he would say. He had run the fastest qualifying time, matching his personal best of 10.11. If he made the top four, he would be on his third Olympic team.
Kirk Baptiste, the reigning NCAA 200 champion, was in Lane 7. As a member of the University of Houston team, Baptiste is also coached by Tellez, and he's all business. In the preliminaries, Lewis kept popping out of the tunnel, where the athletes were shooed right after each race, to see how friends and others were doing. "I don't have time for that," said Baptiste. "I concentrate on my start."
And marooned out in Lane 8 was Sam Graddy, the Tennessee sophomore who won both the NCAA and TAC 100s. "Hey, Lane 8 is the best place I can think of to run your own race," Graddy said. "The whole thing is a straightaway. But, hoo, I felt the electricity in the air."
This was Sunday evening, and as the starter gave the command and the sprinters rose and waited, the spectators—20,552 of them at this session—who for two days had seemed sun-silly and oddly out of touch with the emotional business of selecting the Olympic team, became hushed and expectant.
At the gun, Lewis pressed a fraction too much. "But he caught himself on his first stride," Tellez said. Nonetheless, King was ahead. And Graddy was away beautifully in that outside lane. For an instant Lewis seemed vulnerable. One thought of the heats when he had seemed distracted. He even had forgotten his shorts for his first-round heat. "I went to the bathroom and looked down there and didn't see anything but underwear," he said. His manager, Santa Monica Track Club coach Joe Douglas, rushed a pair to him behind the blocks, and Lewis stepped into a room in the tunnel to slip them on.
But this was the final. Lewis, with a studied unconcern that has always been with him but seems ever more pronounced, accelerated with a clean burst that by 50 meters was irresistible. He was running his own race. Complete with trademarks. With 15 meters to go, he looked to his right. It seemed a look for the sake of a look, because he had two yards on Graddy. With 10 to go he lifted his arms in celebration, adding a few hundredths to his time of 10.06, a stunning mark because it was achieved into a 2.2-meter-per-second headwind.
"This was the hard one, the 100," said Tellez. "This, not the long jump or the 200 [the other individual events Lewis will enter in pursuit of Jesse Owens's accomplishment of winning four track and field gold medals in the '36 Games], is the one that I die on."
Lewis, bubbly and bouncy, seemed nowhere near death. "That felt like a short 100," he said later, still wearing the running suit in which he had accepted his medal, a blinding blue number with a lot of zippers and tucks and gloss. "It went by so fast it only seemed about 99."