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100 Goes to Great Unknown

Belarus' Nesterenko, who wasn't on the radar screen, dashes past Williams.

August 22, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Yuliya Nesterenko of Belarus won the gold medal in the women's 100-meter dash Saturday, coming out of nowhere -- or the closest place to it -- to do so.

Nesterenko, 25, had never broken 11 seconds before the Athens Olympics. She slipped under that mark three times to reach the final, including a personal-best 10.92 in the semifinal.

In the final, she burst past Lauryn Williams in the last 15 meters to finish in 10.93 seconds, becoming the first non-American woman to win the 100 since the U.S.-boycotted 1980 Moscow Games.

Williams, who won the NCAA title for the University of Miami and finished third at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, said Nesterenko was a mystery to her before they ran parallel paths on the Olympic Stadium track.

"I never knew her, never heard of her until this weekend," said Williams, whose pronounced lean got her across the finish line in a personal-best 10.96 seconds, 0.01 ahead of bronze medalist Veronica Campbell of Jamaica.

Yet, there Nesterenko was, short blond hair flying as she sprinted out of Lane 6 and passed the fast-starting Williams, who was in Lane 4.

"I couldn't see her," Williams said. "The only regret I have about the race is I wish she'd been next to me. I don't know if it would have made a difference, but I would have known she was there."

Seeing Nesterenko might not have helped Williams. Ivet Lalova of Bulgaria, who ran a world-leading 10.77 in June, couldn't catch her from Lane 1. Nor could U.S. trials champion LaTasha Colander, who was last in the eight-woman field at 11.18.

"It was not a surprise for me that I run so fast because I train so hard," Nesterenko said through a translator. "I'm not somebody who just arrived."

Perhaps not, but she just arrived at the top.

Her best time last year was 11.45, but she said changes in her training regimen that she declined to specify, and lifting weights, were responsible for her improved results. Her main accomplishments this year, before Athens, were a third-place time of 7.12 seconds in the 60-meter dash at the world indoor championships in March, a victory in a Golden League meet in Rome at 11.13 seconds and a third-place finish at a Grand Prix meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 11.17.

"I've been training this whole year thinking about these Olympic Games, and it helped," she said.

It also helped that Sydney champion Marion Jones didn't make the U.S. team, and that Greek sprinter Ekaterina Thanou withdrew last week after failing to report for a drug test. Torri Edwards, the 2003 world champion, was also missing after being suspended for two years for taking a banned stimulant.

"Of course I'm very, very sorry that these athletes were not able to participate in this competition," Nesterenko said.

Said Williams: "People focused on the drug scandal and I was, 'Hey, I'm not a part of it.' "

Williams' goals for the year were modest. She wanted to break 11 seconds and beat college rival Muna Lee of Louisiana State and win an NCAA title. She accomplished all that and won an Olympic silver medal with eight members of her family in the stadium, thanks to the generosity of benefactors.

The group included her father, David, a kidney dialysis patient who had missed her races Friday. After she crossed the finish line Saturday she looked up to the stands but couldn't find her relatives. She soon saw their images on the stadium's video screen. "I'd like to thank everybody who got my family out here," she said.

"I had no idea I'd be at the Olympics. I had no idea I'd be a silver medalist."

Thirty-seven-year-old Gail Devers, who got a spot in the 100 after Edwards was suspended, was eliminated in the semifinal. Hampered by an injured left calf -- she refused to disclose details beyond saying it happened while she was hurdling on the track near her Atlanta home six days ago -- she faded after a good start and finished seventh in her heat, in 11.22.

Devers, the 100-meter gold medalist in 1992 and 1996, said she would compete in the 100-meter hurdles starting today, and doesn't regret trying for the double.

"I needed the speed work," she said. "I'm disappointed I didn't get to the final. I'm not disappointed with my decision....

"I keep telling you, I'm 19 years old and I'm at my first Olympic Games and I'm going after my gold medal. I'm OK. I just need to focus on the task at hand."

Maurice Greene set himself up to defend his Sydney 100-meter gold medal by running two impressive preliminary rounds Saturday. In a brilliant display of can-you-top-this, Shawn Crawford won his second-round heat in 9.99, Justin Gatlin won the next heat in 9.96, and Greene edged Jamaican sensation Asafa Powell, 9.93 to 9.99, two heats later.

The semifinals and finals will be contested today, and Greene is ready. "We're going to have a party [today]," he said, "and everybody's invited. I'm buying."

Greene set a world record of 9.79 in Athens in 1999, although it was cut to 9.78 two years later by Tim Montgomery. "Athens is a great place for me and I'm going to prove it," Greene said.

But a world record is secondary to proving the validity of the tattoo on his arm of the letters "GOAT" -- greatest of all time.

"If I win the gold and run 12 seconds, I'll be happy," he said.

Four-time medalist Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago didn't get out of the first round of the 100 after being clocked at 10.41. He promptly announced his retirement on his website.

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