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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 400 final Watts was away well, but down the backstretch he saw Lewis running beautifully three lanes outside. Watts thereupon moved so hard going into the second turn that he reached the stretch with a five-meter lead. He clearly tightened but kept his lead and won in 43.50, another Olympic record and the second-fastest 400 ever run. Lewis was second in 44.21. Later, Watts would burn the second leg of the 4 X 400-meter relay in 43.1, the fastest 400 leg ever, for his second gold and a share of the world record in that relay. "Quincy is Jim Bush's first Olympic 400-meter champion," Smith said after the race. "I was supposed to be, 20 years ago. It's nice to help out."

A day later, before the 400-hurdles final, Smith had Young do such a tough warmup on the practice track that several coaches who were watching decided that Young would be too tired to run a decent final. "Ten minutes before the race," Young says, "my nervous energy was gone." It had been replaced by cool resolve. Young was untroubled until he was in the blocks. "Then in my head, I heard a faint, '1988, 1988....' I thought, 'No, 1992, 1992....' I cleared it out."

Which describes, exactly, what he did in the race. "I knew I was running," he says, "but I don't remember touching the ground. Between the sixth and seventh hurdles I'd made up all the staggers. I switched perfectly from 12 to 13 steps. Usually I am tired there, but I wasn't. Usually I am concerned about where the others are, but I wasn't. I was alone. Then I hit the last hurdle."

But Young came over it with his momentum intact and broke into a smile. He drove on, raising an arm in victory with six meters to go. "I only knew I won, and then in the corner of the big screen I saw a little 46.78, and I said, 'Getouttahere!' "

Young had shattered Moses' record by .24 of a second, and the knowledge made him the most frolicsome of Barcelona's victors, at one point lying down on the track and kicking his legs in the air like a puppy.

"I thought I'd experienced the ultimate in 1988, when Steve won," says Smith, "but having Quincy win on my 42nd birthday and Kevin win and break the 47 barrier the next day, it was...well, after all the pains, and the taking of pains, finally, rapture."

Both Watts and Young wanted to pull Smith out of the stands to take their victory laps with them. On neither occasion would he go. "It wasn't my place," he says. "I know, as an athlete, that it is sacred ground out there. Only athletes."

Instead, in the cacophony of celebration, and later, as Young and Watts were rewarded with contracts and racing fees that have made them very comfortable young men, Smith controlled his breathing and meditated.

"I ask myself," he says now, "What is the lesson? The long lesson from Munich to Barcelona? I think it is that what I do, having my say in someone's head while he's running or while he's arranging his life, can't work unless I'm well received. People ask me to describe how I coach, to set down a system, and I can't. Coaching the way I do it is indefinable, except as a mutual act of trust."

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