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"They go to school with me," William Jr. protested. "I know I can beat them."
To teach his son a lesson, William Sr. took the seven-year-old to the track. Young William was so tall that the coach stuck him in with nine-year-olds at practice. When the tyke won, he stepped up to the 11-year-old class. The coach didn't know William's age until his father produced a birth certificate for the opening meet. Moved to the seven-and-under division, William ran the 100 meters in 12.3 to set a national age-group record. Two years later he became the first nine-year-old to run 400 meters in less than a minute.
The punishing quarter is sometimes called the longest dash. "It's the toughest race in track and field, period," says William Sr., who coaches at the Morris Estates Track Club. "In the sprints you don't have time to think and to adjust. In the 400 you have to do both."
"It will take you down," says UCLA's Smith, who was a quarter-miler on the 1972 Olympic team. "You need the speed of a sprinter, the endurance of a distance runner and the grace of a dancer. You must always have a work ethic and keep it fun. You don't grow up like a normal kid. How can you?"
William Sr. steered his son to Central for its academic programs, but the school has no practice facilities for its indoor track team. The Lancers do intervals on a makeshift course laid out in the third-floor hallways. To run the quarter, Reed starts at a trash can set between Ms. Wilcher's biology lab and Dr. Lipton's chemistry classroom. "We borrow Ms. Wilcher's trash bucket every day," says Vince Williams, one of Reed's relay partners. "She's got just one rule: No spitting in the can." Reed hangs a sharp left at Mr. Diviny's science office, ricochets off a row of lockers down a straightaway and into the cafeteria. There he makes a left, a left and another left through the lunch line (HALF-HOAGIE 85 CENTS). He then reverses the route back to Ms. Wilcher's trash can.
Reed threads the halls like a Marine on a Quantico obstacle course. Over the years he has smashed into open doors, sailed over lunchroom tables arid blind-sided cleaning ladies. The real danger, though, is slipping on the orange peels and Tastykake wrappers left on the scuffed stone floor of the cafeteria. "Especially," says Reed, "after a sixth-period food fight."
So far Reed's biggest obstacle has been the pressures of his talent. He worries about getting good enough grades to stay at Central. He frets about colleges—he's leaning toward a warm-weather school like UCLA or SMU. He gets anxious about his Olympic prospects; some think he has an outside shot at next year's Games. He has become an instant celebrity. "Every time William steps out on the track," says Steve Korsin, his outdoor coach, "people not only expect him to win, but to set a record."
"We tell him all the press and all the excitement could disappear tomorrow," says Anita Reed. "We let him know that even if it goes no farther than this, we're still proud of him."
In fact, recent history is full of burned-out teenage quarter-mile stars. "So many great young sprinters have peaked too early," says Rosenfeld. "This kid has tremendous ability, and it's the coaches' job not to mess things up. The worst thing that could happen is if he is overraced and overexposed."
The prognosis for Reed looks good. His coaches put him in a variety of races, and he likes team events. "I'd rather run a relay than by myself," he says. "I like to see my teammates do well. It's more fun." That kind of attitude may take the heat off individual expectation.