Around the final turn of the UCLA track, A dozen men, one after another, are driving themselves through their workouts' last, lactic-acid-tightened sprints. At 20 mph the staccato scraping of their spikes is unnerving, perhaps primordially so. They are upon you and past so quickly that they seem coursing, clawed predators.
You recognize many of them. Mixed in with the Bruin varsity sprinters and hurdlers are British Olympians Marcus Adam, Tony Jarrett and John Regis, and Los Angeles Raider receiver and world-class hurdler Willie Gault. Olympic 400-meter champion Quincy Watts shoots past, followed a few seconds later by Olympic 400-meter hurdle champion and world-record holder Kevin Young. To account for the presence of all these lions, you have only to listen. For they all run in the company of a voice.
The voice gives them intermediate times. The voice reminds them of their keys to maintaining form. When quarter-miler Jason Rouser's back begins to arch, he hears, "Chin down, jaw level. You're trying to run into the sky."
It takes a moment to locate the source of this advice, and when you do he appears to be simply another athlete, though an arresting one in pure white shorts and T-shirt, perfectly muscled, with a face memorable for its expressiveness. This is UCLA sprint coach John Smith, 42, who seems as fit as when he set, while a junior at the school in 1971, the world record for 440 yards.
The quality of Smith's voice is unstrained, even after passing through his bullhorn. It appears to operate on the principle that where a scream may cause us to resist the screamer, a whisper can seem the sound of our own inner voice. And a sprinter, when near the point of tying up, knows all about inner dialogue. To have Smith in his head with him then is a quarter-miler's greatest boon. In just the last two Olympics, Smith has coached four men—Danny Everett, Steve Lewis, Watts and Young—to six gold medals, a bronze and three world records. All ran Smith's distance, the quarter, though Young added the impediment of hurdles.
Young and Watts, training partners, are a striking pair. Young, 26, is 6'4", 170 pounds, all angles and cables. Watts, 23, is 6'3", 200, with massive shoulders, and he is as smoothly surfaced as a swimmer. Young runs high and long. Watts takes short, almost dainty steps. Watching them, Smith issues an edict. "If you're out on the track all day by yourself," he says, "you begin to waddle in your own spit." That means sprinters need to be pushed. Historically, great sprinters have arisen in clusters. Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Lee Evans kept each other honest at San Jose State. Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and Mike Marsh do the same in Houston. Quincy and Kevin are a real, old-time cluster. And they marvel at how Smith can chide without wounding. "He can get in your face and really scold you," Watts says, "and then look you in the eye and say, 'Gimme five. Let's get to work,' and you end up almost hugging. I don't know how he does that."
"You make your point and back off," says Smith. "You have to know how every athlete processes information, and you have to recover from your mistakes. You are a real coach from the day you learn to say I'm sorry without losing the athlete's respect.
"It helps, too," Smith concludes, his smile now a combination of sunshine and craftiness, "to always bring honey to the table."
After practice Smith invites you into the leathery womb of his midnight-blue Lexus, the first new car he has ever owned, and drives to the Moustache Cafe for the rack of lamb and a chocolate soufflé. He is a great, slow savorer, not least of language.
"You see I have no scars, so you know I talked a good game," Smith says as he recalls growing up in rugged South Central Los Angeles. His father, John Sr., noticing that John was beginning to run with a pack of buddies after school, took him out of the group and put him to work in his janitorial business. John was seven.