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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The track at the University of Houston's Robertson Stadium is a throbbing red, as though baked with the heat from some primal fire. It's only early June, yet the sun is merciless, pushing the temperature into the mid-90's and transforming the skyscrapers of downtown Houston into a mirage of shimmering mirrors. Some days the track gets so hot that Leroy Burrell has to pour water on it before he can place his fingers on the surface to practice his start.
Burrell is clad in black bicycle tights, and his broad, muscular back drips with sweat. He settles into his blocks; two lanes to his right, Carl Lewis does the same. They rise to the set position, rock back and forth and then explode from the blocks. Fifty meters down the track they ease up, turn and walk slowly back.
"Was that better?" Burrell asks his coach, Tom Tellez. "It felt easier."
"Much better," Tellez says. "It doesn't feel fast when you do it right."
After six starts things begin to loosen up. "Track practice for us is a social thing," says Burrell. "We'll talk for three hours."
The talk on this scorcher of a day is jubilant, mercurial. It jumps from Spike Lee's movie Jungle Fever to sprinter Mark Witherspoon's new hairdo, a "flattop fade with a curl" that sits atop Witherspoon's head like a bird's nest. " 'Spoon," asks Tellez innocently, "you got some eggs up there?"
Don't be fooled by the repartee; this is fast company that Burrell is keeping. On June 14, when Burrell lowered the world record for 100 meters to 9.90, eclipsing Lewis's mark of 9.92, the scene at the USA/Mobil Outdoor Track & Field Championships in New York City looked very much like a normal afternoon on the Robertson track. Four of the other seven finalists in the 100 were Burrell's Santa Monica Track Club teammates who, like Burrell, work out in Houston: Lewis was second, in 9.93, and Floyd Heard (10.10), Witherspoon (10.12) and Mike Marsh (10.20) placed fifth, sixth and seventh. Add 1988 Olympic 200 champion Joe DeLoach, who is passing up the rest of this season with a bad back, and Steve Lewis and Danny Everett, the Olympic gold and bronze medalists in the 400, and the club's goals of setting world records for the 4 X 100, 4 X 200 and 4 X 400 relays do not seem at all farfetched.
With Ben Johnson a slim shadow of his former self, the only man who looks capable of beating Burrell is Lewis. "I'm as much of a challenge for Carl as he is for me," says Burrell, who at 5'10" and 180 pounds is built less like his lean, 6'2" training partner than like the muscular Johnson.
Burrell, 24, has long been compared with Lewis, who is six years his elder. They grew up just 20 miles apart, Burrell in Lansdowne, Pa., a suburb west of Philadelphia, and Lewis across the Delaware River, in Willingboro, N.J. When Burrell was a high school senior, the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia did a film comparison of the two, alternating footage of Burrell and Lewis running the 100 and 200 and long jumping.
No one is quite sure which man is faster. "If they raced 10 times, I'd be surprised if one guy won more than six," says Mike Takaha, Tellez's assistant. Santa Monica teammate Cletus Clark, a hurdler, says, "You get them both in peak shape, in the right conditions, and you'll see nothing short of a world record." It took the men nine races to prove Clark right. After the TAC championships, Lewis held a 6-3 edge, but Burrell's three wins had come in their last four races.