Jeremy Wariner walks with a slouch. He hides his eyes behind dark sunglasses and has a diamond in each ear. He is wearing baggy black shorts that fall below his knees and a T-shirt with the image of Muhammad Ali and the words "I Am The Greatest."
The T-shirt is no brag.
Wariner is the greatest 400-meter runner in the world right now, the defending Olympic and world champion.
His fans call Wariner, 23, affectionately, "The fastest white boy." Wariner's mother, Linda, says, "We have a copy of a tape of when Jeremy was a high school senior and he was running the 200 at districts. He came flying around the last curve and was beating everybody and we caught a picture of one kid, he turned to his friend and you could read his lips. He said, 'A white boy?' It was hilarious."
On this particular afternoon Wariner, who grew up in Arlington, Texas, and trains at Baylor University, sat on a rail above the dusty track at Long Beach Poly High to answer questions from members of the Jackrabbits' track team, a multicultural, multilingual group, who wanted to know how to run fast and how much money you could make running fast.
Oh, and one other thing.
"What do you eat before a race," one girl asks.
"I can't lie to you," Wariner says. "Four hours before my race in Athens I ate McDonald's." The high school runners whoop and holler. Their coaches cover their eyes.
That race? Wariner won an Olympic gold medal in a stunning exhibition of smooth speed and preternatural calm. He was barely 20 and now, three years later, Wariner has come to Southern California as a certified track and field star.
He will run the 400 meters Sunday at the Adidas Track Classic at the Home Depot Center. His plan for this season is to break the 400-meter world record of 43.18 set by Michael Johnson in 1999.
Wariner has run a personal-best of 43.62 and says casually to the Poly kids, "Since I've run a 43, I know what it feels like. Only one other guy can say that. Michael." That is the simple way Wariner speaks. Truthfully.
He eats McDonald's. When he's not running he's "messing with my cars and on the PlayStation." His girlfriend, Kandace Tucker, says he also watches television. "Two channels," she says. "ESPN and the Food Network. Jeremy really can cook."
Track and field has taken considerable publicity blows over alleged drug cheats. The worst came last summer when Justin Gatlin, an Olympic gold medalist and co-world record holder in the 100 meters, was banned for eight years for failing a drug test.
Linda Wariner gets so angry her voice begins shaking when she speaks of the rumors that follow nearly every top track athlete these days, even her son.
"The day it was written Gatlin proved positive," she says, "there was a list out almost immediately on some website that basically named people, including Jeremy. I ended up sending an e-mail to the people who controlled the site. I told them it was slander and libel and if they didn't stop they'd be in trouble. Jeremy's ability is his ability alone."
Wariner is coached by Clyde Hart, the man who molded Johnson. And though Johnson is part of Wariner's management team, there is no similarity between the two athletes, Hart says, except extraordinary talent.
"Jeremy is lighter and just glides around the track," Hart says. "Michael was stronger. He kind of wrestled that race. Michael weighed 180 in his prime. Jeremy is 155 dripping wet. Jeremy is much more laid back. Nothing bothers Jeremy. He runs with blinders. Michael was more intense.
"My blessing is that I've coached them both."
Waiting to visit with Wariner on Thursday was Poly track star Bryshon Nellum.
Nellum, a senior who has signed a letter of intent to run track at USC and who also hopes to play receiver for the Trojans, is the defending state champion in the 200- and 400-meter races.
Wariner knows of Nellum. "He's got a lot of talent, but it's hard to run the 400 and play football," Wariner says.
Linda Wariner remembers Jeremy first playing soccer, then football. It wasn't until strangers in the stands would point at her son and say, "He has the best running form I've ever seen," that she and husband Danny suggested Jeremy try track.
As Wariner autographed posters for Poly runners Thursday, Nellum sat beside the Olympic star. He whispered some questions to Wariner. "He's just amazing," Nellum says. "I watch him run with awe."
Last summer Wariner ran his 43.62. Earlier this month in Osaka, Japan, on the same track where the world championships will be held in August, Wariner ran a 44.02. "That's awfully fast for May," Hart says.
Wariner says his goal is to beat Johnson's 43.18 at that meet. "You have to have goals," he says. "So that's mine."
Wariner won the 2004 Olympic gold in 44 flat. He also earned a gold in the 1,600-meter relay. He's the defending world champion.
For all his speed, though, Wariner took his time with the Jackrabbits. He answered 30 questions and signed at least that many posters.
Poly Coach Don Norford, who is African American, says, "That young man has so much talent. I wish more white kids would run track. I'm sure there are more fast ones around. Track needs them."
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Here are some of the athletes expected to compete at Sunday's Adidas Track Classic at the Home Depot Center in Carson:
* Olympic gold medalists Jeremy Wariner (400 meters), Maurice Greene (100 meters), Stacy Dragila (pole vault), Allen Johnson (110 hurdles), Shawn Crawford (200 meters) and Meseret Defar (5,000 meters).
* World champions Allyson Felix (200 meters), Ana Guevara (400 meters), Michelle Perry (100 hurdles) and Adam Nelson (shotput).
-- Diane Pucin