But it was the 400-meter final, the last race of the meet, that was the magnet and climax of the championships. Even the unexpected sight of Eugene's favorite first-grade teacher, the gritty Annette Peters—who had insisted she had no kick left after winning the women's 3,000—blazing past Suzy Hamilton and Alisa Hill to win the 1,500 served only as a warmup act, whipping the crowd into a proper frame of mind for the men's quarter.
At the gun Andrew Valmon's blocks in Lane 4 slipped slightly, but he recovered, and the field was away. Watts, in Lane 7, went hardest. "I wanted to be like a fox," he said later. "If I was going to lose, they were going to have to chase me down in the woods. Deep in the woods."
Reynolds started well in Lane 5, taking care not to go wild. The race, he felt, would be decided in the last 100. Stay in contention, he told himself, and your strength will take you home. In the back-stretch he seemed silk on rails.
Johnson departed from the blocks with disturbing nonchalance but soon was running third, about even with Reynolds. His pistonlike stride was impossible to read for fatigue or reserve. "I wanted 21 seconds for the 200," he would say. "But Quincy had quite a gap on us. I relaxed and waited."
Watts passed 200 meters in 20.95 seconds, looking more powerful than he had in the Olympic final. For a moment he seemed uncatchable.
Then Johnson took off. There have been few moves like it—perhaps Otis Davis's explosive third 100 in the 1960 Rome Olympic final or Reynolds's majestic, eyes-shut homestretch run in his world-record race in Zurich in 1988. Suddenly, Johnson looked like a roller-derby skater who had been hurled ahead by a line of teammates.
He went by Valmon so fast it was all the seasoned Olympian could do to keep from panicking. He shot past Watts as they came out of the turn. "Watts was done, I had Butch in check, and I felt like I had a lot left," said Johnson. "I concentrated on holding my form."
Reynolds passed Watts but could not gain on Johnson. "He did what I'm accustomed to doing," Reynolds said afterward. "Michael has a lot of 100s and 200s under his belt this year, so he had the leg speed to make a move like that on the turn. It was a mistake for me not to race for a month before this."
The calm little guy won in 43.74, which is the fastest ever run on U.S. soil and fourth fastest ever in the world, behind only the marks of the two big guys Johnson left flailing in his wake. Reynolds was second in 44.12, and Watts barely held off Valmon for third, 44.24 to 44.28.
Johnson's smile was wide and deep when he realized what he had done. "I feel this validated my whole approach," he said. "People said I didn't deserve to be top ranked those two years in the 400 when I didn't run it in the major meets, and people doubted I'd make it through the rounds. But here I ran my fastest time when I was supposed to be a tired boy."