In the excitement over winning his first 100-meter U.S. national championship last Friday, Mike Rodgers sounded like a man who had signed up for the wrong event. "Long road, man," Rodgers shouted as he stood under a tent near the Hayward Field track in Eugene, Ore. "Knew I'd get there." It was marathon talk, not sprinter speak. But few sprinters have had as delayed a trajectory to success as Rodgers, 24, who had just earned a trip to the world championships in Berlin in August, grabbing the lead after 30 meters and crossing the line in a wind-aided 9.91 seconds, a scant hundredth of a second ahead of a charging Darvis Patton.
After he bombed out of the 100 semifinals at the 2007 nationals in Indianapolis, Rodgers—who competed in college for Lindenwood and Oklahoma Baptist—thought he'd run his last race. Even his biological father, Michael Walker, had suggested he quit. "He said track wasn't a real sport," recalls Rodgers, who was raised by his stepfather, Calvin Usery, an engineer at Boeing.
Rodgers, who had a job at a sporting-goods store in his native St. Louis, figured he'd go back to hawking shoes out of the trunk of his Chevy Malibu. (He estimates he peddled about 600 pairs, buying Air Force 1s in bulk through his job and reselling them.) "They paid my bills," he says. "Nobody believed in me, and I wasn't getting any faster."
But Darryl Woodson, a former coach at Jackson State, ran into Rodgers while waiting in line for a hot dog at the track concession stand in Indy. Woodson had always admired the 5'9", 160-pound Rodgers's raw talent, even as he had cringed at his poor technique. "He simply did not know how to use his arms," says Woodson, who had started his own club in Austin. "He was all over the place." Rodgers told Woodson he was done racing. "Give me a few months with you and see if you still feel that way," Woodson replied.
Rodgers moved to Austin later that year, and Woodson coaxed him into the weight room to build up his arms. "I'd never lifted anything except gummy bears," Rodgers says. But he gradually noticed an explosiveness and sense of body control he hadn't had before. "It took three months for me to understand that what Coach was telling me was working," he says.
In February 2008 Rodgers won the national indoor title at 60 meters and then finished fourth at the world indoor championships the following month. He started getting appearance fees from promoters who had refused to give him a lane the year before. And Nike signed him to a four-year contract. Then, last month, he won the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene in 9.94, beating Jamaica's Asafa Powell, a former world-record holder.
Granted, Rodgers didn't have to contend with Tyson Gay in the final last week. Gay ran a wind-aided 9.75 in the first round and then withdrew, since as the defending world champ, he was already guaranteed a place in Berlin. With a showdown looming between Olympic champ Usain Bolt and Gay at worlds, Rodgers has quietly crept into the medal hunt. "Sprinting's got two big dogs," he says, "but I'm O.K. being the underdog."
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