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U.S. OUTDOOR TRACK AND FIELD CHAMPIONSHIPS

Holding Fast

Montgomery has Marion, his faith and a world record in the 100, so why would he possibly need a coach?

June 19, 2003|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

CARY, N.C. — At 10 in the morning, on a blood-red track that bakes in the summer months under the blazing sun and shivers in the damp cold of the Carolina winters, the sound of the footsteps of the world's fastest man carries out to the stands of tall pines beyond the chain-link fence, then drifts away into the sky.

Tim Montgomery is alone.

Rain, snow, sun, heat, breezy, buggy, summer, winter, spring or fall -- Montgomery shows up at the track at 10. By himself. For more than six months now, pretty much since he ran faster than anyone has ever run 100 meters, he has had no coach. He has had only Marion -- Marion Jones, his partner, the world's most famous female sprinter, mother-to-be of his child. When she can, she shows up to film his workouts.

In track and field circles, what Montgomery is doing is more or less heresy. A sprinter works with a coach. That is that. But Montgomery has had no coach. It doesn't matter, he said as he readies for the U.S. outdoor championships that start today in Palo Alto. It's only one more obstacle. What is one more challenge in a life with a path mined with obstacles, littered with doubters?

"I am a true believer," he said, humble before his God, manifestly sure of himself at the starting line.

"I've been brought up in church and I believe that you've got to have faith," he said. "You've got to believe in something so bad and put God first. And all these obstacles ... I never [believed] I couldn't break the world record."

Last September in Paris, Montgomery ran the 100 in 9.78 seconds. Maurice Greene had run 9.79 in 1999. Greene won the 100 meters in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Montgomery hadn't even qualified for the Olympic 100. So how is it that Montgomery, of all the sprinters in the world, would be the one to lower the mark to 9.78?

God-given talent. And faith. And Marion Jones.

Montgomery is blessed with talent -- unbelievable talent, for he is 5 feet 9, perhaps 160 pounds, racing against chiseled blocks who often tower over him and outweigh him by 40 pounds or more.

Growing up in Gaffney, S.C., all he ever wanted to be was a football player.

But when he got to high school, it was clear, even to him, that he was too small to play ball. So to earn a black-and-gold Gaffney Indians letter jacket, to be somebody, his only real option was track. If he ran and won four races, he said, he could get that jacket.

His first race, he showed up at the start line and all the other runners settled into something called blocks. He had no idea what they were.

"So I went from a standing start. The [official] looked at me, he said, 'Uh, when you do that type of start, you have to stand completely still.' So I had to let the rest of the people go and then I went," he said. "I ended up winning the race."

At the regional meet, he squared off against a star athlete named Stephen Davis. Davis wore the blue and gold of the rival Spartanburg Vikings. This was the race Montgomery needed for the jacket.

"Everybody on the football field was terrified of Stephen Davis: 'Stephen Davis was the best. Stephen Davis was the best.' So the regionals, I ended up beating Stephen Davis. And that's when I fell in love with track and field. I fell in love with the odds being against me and me overcoming the odds."

Davis, now with the Carolina Panthers after starring for several seasons with the Washington Redskins, got his revenge later that spring at the state meet. Montgomery can still remember the times. So can Davis: Davis, 10.28. Montgomery, 10.34. "The only race I lost in high school," Montgomery said.

Said Davis: "You couldn't believe how small he was and how fast."

Montgomery had never wanted to leave Gaffney. When the time came to take the SAT, he said, he signed his name and left -- didn't even bother to take the test. What for? But a few weeks after his last race in high school, he and a friend found themselves in a confrontation. The friend was shot dead and, as Montgomery tells the story, "I went to court, and the judge told me, 'This right here should be a lesson to you. You should get out of this town.' "

The only place that would take Montgomery, on a flier, was Blinn Junior College in Brenham, Texas, about 90 miles east of Austin. Montgomery hitched a ride west. He carried no luggage. When he got to his dorm room, there were no sheets. The coach took one look at Montgomery, all of 128 pounds, and told him he'd be lucky to make the traveling squad.

His freshman year, Montgomery said, he didn't lose a race. In 1994, he set what he thought was a world junior record in the 100 of 9.96. Three weeks later, he got a call: The course was 3.7 centimeters short. No record.

Montgomery moved to Norfolk State, in Virginia. In 1996, he made the U.S. Olympic team, but only in the 400-meter relay pool. And in the relays, "I ran two rounds and they pulled me off in the finals." The U.S. team finished second.

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