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Johnson Turns Back Clock in 200, and Suddenly It's the 19.32 Games

August 02, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — A flying wedge of blockers runs interference, but Michael Johnson gets gang-tackled by the autograph seekers anyway. "Michael! Michael!" they beseech him, thrusting scraps of paper, caps, cups, anything they can find, until eventually the uniformed cops give up. After all, the fastest man alive is no longer in a hurry.

He signs his name, again and again, the Olympic 200 meter champion does, with a smile all over his face.

And then he picks up his nylon athletic bag, the one with this baggage tag:


Oh, so serious he always seemed, so intense. But now he was not only fast, he was loose. That "nerd," the one whose high school teacher in Texas took one look at Michael's horn-rimmed glasses and briefcase and made him feel like a fool, that guy should see Mike Johnson now.

Clyde Hart sure wants to, but he can't get through the door.

"Let him in. He's Johnson's coach," someone appeals to a security guard on behalf of Hart, the coach from Baylor University who has devoted many of his 33 years there to the training of Michael Johnson.

Many a morning Hart has spent in the heat of Waco, watching his pupil huffing and puffing while the Union Pacific trains rumble by.

Johnson has just run 200 meters in 19.32 seconds. Unbelievable.

"I thought he'd break a world record, but not by that much," Hart says, waiting with his Baylor assistant, Danny Brabham, for the guard to let them pass.

"Oh, did he break a world record?" the guard asks.

Hart can't believe his ears.

"Did he break a world record? Did he break a world record?!

"Nineteen point three two!"

Hart looks at Brabham. Brabham looks at Hart.

With an accent from deep in the heart of Texas, Hart says: "Man, that might be the largest margin a record's ever been broken by anybody!"

"Unbelievable," Brabham adds.

Once they grew everything big in Texas, but this one grew up swift. There is no practical explanation for having this kind of bullet-train speed that Michael Johnson can think of, because the son of Paul Johnson, a Dallas truck driver, and Ruby Johnson, a teacher, had an upbringing more dedicated to homework than roadwork.

Looking back, though, Michael's oh-so-serious face still has that smile.

"My dad bought me a go-kart as a kid," he remembers, as bronze medalist Ato Boldon, who goes to UCLA, sits by, listening intently. "There was a big hill at the end of the road, and I could make that go-kart go downhill so fast, it was like flying."

"My next training method!" Boldon interrupts.

Johnson nudges his shoulder.

"It's the only thing that really compares to running this fast," Johnson continues, "so you go get a go-kart and go downhill, and you'll know how it feels."

He is into speed. He has taken Formula One auto driving lessons. When a track meet was in Sweden, the favorite part of Johnson's trip was a tour of a Volvo plant. He drives fast cars, and after being presented a Mercedes-Benz for winning a championship at Stuttgart, Johnson felt compelled to admit, "Anybody good enough to win one already has one."

The man he admires most, though, traveled by foot.

Johnson idolizes Jesse Owens.

Truth is, though, Jesse Owens couldn't have caught Michael Johnson unless he was riding a horse.

In 1936, in Berlin, the winning time for Owens in the 200 was 20.7 seconds. All eight men here ran faster than that.

"Jesse Owens is my hero," Johnson maintains, and one of the reasons why was that Owens knew what it was like to have millions of eyes on him, expecting greatness. The first thing Johnson mentioned after the race, when the TV cameras got to him, was that the pressure had been unbelievable.

When he came blazing around the curve, necklace flopping from side to side, muscles twitching, veins bulging, Johnson ran with a raw power the likes of which few have seen.

He won the 200 and 400 both that way, and Hart says of the 100, "I wish they'd run it on the curve. Then he'd win that too."

The crowd made him go faster, Johnson says, believing that anywhere else in the world, 19.5 or 19.6 seconds probably would have been his time. Successfully doubling in the 200 and 400 means more to him than a world record, because many others can have those. But he also admits: "I would have lost money betting on me to run this fast."

No one has ever run this fast.

So serious for so long, Michael Johnson's face tells the story.

"You're the fastest man alive!" one of the autograph hounds cries.

Mike Johnson, man with a smiley face, answers: "Thank you."

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