There were portents in the tornadoes that ripped through central Texas on April 6, 1990, the opening day of the Texas Relays in Austin. The whole day was cold and blustery. But by evening, when Michael Johnson stepped onto the track to anchor Baylor's 4 x 200 relay team, the wind had died, giving way to a chilly stillness.
Johnson grabbed the baton in third place, a dozen meters behind Ralston Wright of TCU and Steve Lofton of Texas A&M. Meet announcer Frank Fallon almost became tongue-tied trying to keep track of Johnson's progress. "He was going so doggone fast I had trouble getting the words out," says Fallon. Johnson caught Lofton first. Then, 10 meters from the finish, he nailed Wright.
"I'm embarrassed to say this," whispered Baylor coach Clyde Hart to a friend, "but I had him in 18.5." Split times for relays are unofficial, but the fastest relay 200 split previously reported was an 18.7. Hart felt a little better when he learned that others in Austin had clocked Johnson in 18.2 or even 18.1.
Like many of Johnson's best runs in 200- and 400-meter competition, his performance in Austin left the imagination lots of room to roam. "Michael's best running is all in front of him," says Hart.
Last year Johnson accomplished in one season what no one had ever done in a career: He ended the year ranked first in the world at both 200 and 400 meters. On three occasions he has run the 200 in 19.90 or faster, a feat that no one but Carl Lewis (six times) has been able to achieve more than once in a career. With bests of 19.85 in the 200 and 44.21 in the 400, Johnson is now the only man to appear among the alltime Top 10 performers in both events, ranking fifth in the former and eighth in the latter. He was chosen male Athlete of the Year for 1990 by Track & Field News.
However, Johnson, 23, does not know which of the two events will eventually be his best. "In the 200, I know what I'm doing," he says. "I haven't mastered it yet, but I have an idea what it takes to run a certain time." But at 400, he says, "I'm clueless."
Perhaps, but his success in the two events has created quite a stir. "People are really into that 200-400 thing," says Johnson, sounding genuinely mystified. "I think there's always been a stereotype: If you ran the 200, you also ran the 100. If you ran the 400, that was all you did."
Johnson's voice is a resonant baritone, the perfect vehicle for his matter-of-fact repudiations of the sport's tenets. Peaking? "I've never really followed that philosophy of peaking," he says. "Last year I ran 18.5 [the anchor leg in Austin] in April, 43.5 in May [anchoring a 4 x 400 relay], 19.90 in June, 19.85 in July, 19.88 in August and 44.21 in September. So when did I peak?"
There is no arrogance in the question. Johnson is modest to a fault. Ruby Johnson is not surprised to learn that her son has neglected to mention that he has been given the key to the City of Dallas. "You have to kind of drag it out of him," she says.
"Michael's not comfortable being pampered or treated like a star," says Hart. "It's very important to feel like an athlete and not like a business entity."