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Keeping Track
Kenny Moore
July 05, 1993
Former quarter-mile champ John Smith now oversees other sprinters in their quest to excel
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July 05, 1993

Keeping Track

Former quarter-mile champ John Smith now oversees other sprinters in their quest to excel

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In the Seoul Olympics, Young placed fourth in the 400 hurdles. Lewis, only a freshman, won the 400 gold in 43.87, beating world-record holder Butch Reynolds. Everett took the bronze. "I thought that had to be the climax," Smith says. "It wasn't as if I'd won a medal of my own, but the fire, not dying, had let me help others. How could it possibly get any better than that?"

But things were still building. Smith had met Watts in 1985 when Watts's father, Rufus, took his 15-year-old son to watch a UCLA workout and meet the coach. The boy worried that the coach wouldn't have time to talk to him, but he was wrong. "He was 6'1" and he'd run a sub-20 200," Smith says. "I said if he was eligible, I'd put him on the varsity that day."

Watts won the California high school 200 in 21.03 as a sophomore and again in 1987 with a 20.99, but when he picked a college, he chose USC. "I didn't feel betrayed," says Smith. "But he was the first superstar I'd recruited and lost. I called him that night and left a message on his machine, friend to friend, that I was patiently waiting. We'd work together sometime."

"That touched me," says Rufus.

Smith left other messages through the next few years, to buoy Watts's spirits during all the time he was laid up with the various injuries he incurred running the 100 and 200 for the Trojans. Basketball had so developed his quadriceps muscles that they kept overpowering his hamstrings. Then none other than Jim Bush, Smith's old mentor, came out of retirement to become the track coach at USC. The injuries from the short sprints, combined with spending a season as linebacker-fodder on the Trojan football team, inspired Watts to give the 400 a serious try.

Six months after taking up the event in earnest, he ran a leg on the U.S. 4 X 400-meter-relay team at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo. He had dislocated his jaw with the force of his vomiting after running in the semifinal, so not too much was expected of him in the final. He ran 43.4, though the team finished second. "He is going to be the best who ever lived," said Bush.

Young, who had withdrawn from Carl Lewis's Santa Monica Track Club, entered the 1992 Olympic year sponsorless and teamless. But the summer before, he had found himself doing his best work in the company of this big kid, Watts, who would come over to Westwood every now and then. After Watts won the NCAA 400 in 44.00, completing his USC eligibility, he came to train with Smith and Young full time.

So it was that three friends headed to the Olympic trials in New Orleans last June. Of course, the 400-meter race at the trials turned into a historic test of its entrants' stability. When Reynolds, suspended on a dubious drug charge by the IAAF, obtained a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing him to run, the IAAF threatened to ban anyone who took the track against him. The preliminary heats were postponed again and again while athletes waited for IAAF president Primo Nebiolo to back down. In the confusion and acrimony, Watts was steadied by Smith's repeated reminders that he had come to run, not argue. After Nebiolo relented, the event was finally held, and Watts placed third in the final behind Everett and Steve Lewis, thus qualifying for Barcelona. Young won the 400 hurdles.

In Spain, Young and Watts shared a room in the Olympic Village. And they wrote their goals on the wall. Watts wrote, "43 low." Reynolds's 400-meter record was 43.29. Young wrote, "46.89." Edwin Moses's world record was 47.02.

The 400 came first. Watts ran raggedly in the first round, but after a talk with Smith he powered to 43.71 in his semi, breaking Lee Evans's 24-year-old Olympic record of 43.86. Watts did this even though he floated in over the last 10 meters. The other semi was won by Steve Lewis, now looking as dangerous as he had when he won in Seoul.

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