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Trio chases Johnson`s mark in 200 meters

27 December 2006
www.wcsn.com

With his fabulous 19.63 dash in the 200 meters in Lausanne last July, Xavier Carter accomplished two significant feats. First, the 20-year-old rose to international stardom by becoming the second-fastest man in history over the half-lap, behind only Michael Johnson's legendary 19.32 world record run in 1996. But he also did something that the athletics world has been patiently waiting on over for 10 years: help revive the event to the point where a realistic assault on Johnson's mark would finally be openly discussed.

Carter's breakout:"I thought I'd run a PR, but it was a shock," said Carter of his Lausanne dash, the fastest the world had seen since Johnson's otherworldly performance at the 1996 Olympics. Carter admitted that he didn't initially realize the gravity of his accomplishment, but is fully aware of it now. "I didn't know it at the time. I realized it afterwards. Being so young, I didn't really know that it was the second-fastest ever."

Yet Carter's breakout performance was only the beginning of what would become the hottest event in the sport during the season's second half.

Twice 19.70 or faster: Next to cross the line in Lausanne was Tyson Gay, whose 19.70 made him, at the time, the event's fourth-fastest ever. He would steal the spotlight later in the season, following up with 19.84 and 19.78 victories in London and Brussels -- both over Carter -- before his scorching 19.68 victory at the World Athletics Final in Stuttgart to equal Frank Fredericks as history's third-fastest in the event.

"This is incredible," Gay said in Stuttgart, after he joined Johnson as the only other sprinter to twice run 19.70 or faster.

But 18 days later, Gay would be outdone by his training partner Wallace Spearmon Jr. In Daegu, South Korea, the reigning World Championship silver medalist produced a dazzling display of his own with a 19.65 victory to pull ahead of Gay and take sole ownership of the No. 3 spot on the all-time list.

"I tried not to show it," Spearmon said after his Daegu dash, "but I was excited."

The future's in our hands: Prior to this season, only two men, Johnson and Fredericks, had ever dipped under 19.70. This season, three joined that exclusive club. And boding extremely well for the future is that Gay, at just 23, is the oldest of that trio. Underscoring the event's unprecedented depth this season was Jamaican Usain Bolt's 19.88, a career best for the world junior record holder who finally turned 20 this year. In all, six runners dipped under 20 seconds 16 times this season, the best depth displayed in the event since Johnson led four others under that barrier on 19 occasions a decade ago. Suddenly, a record that seemed untouchable for perhaps another decade -- or even more -- seemed slightly less out of reach.

The prospects seem bright, and the main players are extremely excited to continue the momentum in 2007.

"In my eyes, the future's in our hands," said Carter, who later went on to produce 19.98 and 19.97 performances in London and Brussels to finally conclude a season that was supposed to end more than two months earlier with his historic quadruple victory at the NCAA Championships. "We're always going to have good competition. When Michael Johnson was running, there were maybe two guys out there. But now there are at least three or four dominant runners. And everyone's going to stay focused.

"You have four true competitors who really don't like to lose. And are blessed with great God-given talent. I look at that and wonder what we'll do next year." To underscore his point, Spearmon explained that none of his chief rivals had focused specifically on the half lap this year.

"Tyson focused on the 100, I had a break in my season, Xavier played football last fall so didn't do any base training, and Usain was hurt. If we're all healthy and have a focused year, we're going to have some really close fast races. No one wants to lose."

"An exciting time" for 200-meter running: Fredericks is also relishing the possibilities that a new era in the event has dawned. After "suffering for talent" over the past several years, Fredericks said his former event is going through "an exciting time."

"Now we can see that we have four young men who are very talented. And that pushes everyone. I think that we are going through an exciting time. And maybe next year we can go to 19.5s, and then 19.3s and even 19.2s."

To fully take advantage of the current situation, Gay issued a challenge in Stuttgart to ensure that all the key players continue to race well and often in 2007.

"I know next year we're all going to train even harder, Wallace and I, Xavier," he said. "And I don't want any ducking. None of that, 'I need more money.' No ducking. I want to race the best every time I step on the track. I want to continue to win some and lose some and just get better each time."

"I'm with him," said Spearmon. "We did that all this season, and I hope the chances come up again. And I'll be ready to run right with him."

Spearmon said he felt listless prior to his race in Daegu, and didn't think he'd produce that quick a performance. But he added that he was encouraged by Gay, who told him a few days earlier that he was ready for a 19.6. "It felt slow," recalled Spearmon. "When I was warming up, I felt heavy and sluggish. And over the first couple of steps I stumbled. I didn't know or feel that I was running that fast."

Anybody can step up: Johnson's legendary 19.32 dash into immortality a decade ago was seldom discussed in recent years as being breakable. Not until this year.

"Anything is possible," Carter said.

"That would be the day!" said Spearmon. "But if I ran that fast, Tyson and the others would run that same time. Tyson, Xavier, and Usain -- we'd all have to be in top shape." Throw in ideal conditions, a large crowd and perhaps a good tailwind, Spearmon added, "Maybe one or two of us could break the record. Maybe three or four."

An obvious goal for the American trio is another shot at a medal sweep at the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, next summer, but they're all well aware that the first challenge of the season will be to survive the rigorous U.S. selection process.

"One or two college guys always step up," said Spearmon, reeling off a quick list of other potential threats. "Last year it was [U.S. nationals runner-up] Jordan Vaden. I wasn't watching for him, and he ran well. Since he'll have a bye [in the 400], Jeremy [Wariner] will probably run. Then there's [Olympic champion] Shawn Crawford, and Kelly Willie's been running well. Anybody can really step up. You never know."



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