Dashing new hero
13 May 2007
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By John Meyer
The man who coaches Jeremy Wariner, the world's greatest white sprinter, was once a pretty fair country sprinter himself. And when Clyde Hart says skin color has little to do with success as a sprinter, he harkens back to his boyhood in segregated Hot Springs, Ark., in the 1950s.
In those days, Hart ran with Bobby Mitchell, who had a Hall of Fame career in the NFL and set a world indoor record for the 70-meter hurdles. Neither had a track or a coach in high school, so they trained by racing each other.
"He was the state champion in the black school division and I was the state champion in the white," said Hart, Baylor's guru of the 400 meters who coached Michael Johnson to three individual Olympic gold medals in the 200 and 400 and world records in both events. "We never raced officially. We would run until one of us would say uncle. He never beat me."
Decades later, Mitchell spotted Hart in the audience at a speaking engagement, pointed to him and said: "That's the only white guy who ever outran me."
No wonder Wariner, the reigning Olympic and world champion in the 400 who just might break Johnson's world record this year, doesn't think of his skin color as a disadvantage.
"I don't see that," Wariner said before a workout at the Baylor track this spring. "I'm an athlete, they're an athlete, we're all trying to do the same things. The only hurdle I had, my first hurdle was trying to get under 45 (seconds), the next one was getting under 44. My next hurdle is to get under 43.
"I don't see, 'The first white to do this, the first white to do that.' "
Others do, however.
"I've never seen a white man run that fast," Grenada's Alleyne Francique said after finishing fourth in the race Wariner won at the 2004 Athens Olympics. "It was a blazing race, man. The kid is good."
So good only three men in history have run faster than the 43.62 he ran last summer at age 22. So good he became an Olympic champion before turning professional. So good he's closing in on Johnson's world record of 43.18, set at the 1999 world championships when Johnson was 31.
All in the family
On May 5, Wariner ran 44.02 — the fastest time in May, when sprinters are just gearing up for the season — on the track where the world championships will be held in August. He said he hopes to break the record when he returns. If he does, at least the record will stay within the circle of men who helped forge it. Not only do Wariner and Johnson have Hart's coaching in common, but Johnson is Wariner's agent.
Hart doesn't deny successful white sprinters are unusual today.
"I think the black athlete in our country has taken advantage of the opportunities to get their education (through track), while a lot of our white athletes are on the computer, they're driving their cars, they're playing golf," Hart said. "I don't think there's any physical reason. I think the white athlete is not as hungry as they used to be."
Wariner demonstrated exceptional speed at a young age. Growing up in Arlington, he played everything — soccer, baseball, basketball, football, roller hockey — often changing clothes in the back seat of his mother's car on the way from one practice to another.
"Playing soccer when I was a little kid, I was always running down the field before everybody else," Wariner said. "Playing basketball, I was always too fast to do a layup — I was always missing them because I couldn't get the rhythm down for a while."
Wariner's mother, Linda, has some Cherokee blood in her ancestry and believes that's where Jeremy got his speed.
"As early as the fifth grade, somebody noticed how smooth his stride was," Linda Wariner said. "They said, 'Your son runs like an antelope.' "
As with any true Texan, football was Wariner's first love. In the living room of his parents' home in Arlington is a picture of him getting blown up by a defensive back after making a catch for Lamar High School in a state playoff game at Texas Stadium. Wariner had dreams of playing college football and attracted scholarship feelers, but he was as frail as he was fast, so he decided to concentrate on track after winning the 200 and 400 at the state meet his senior year. He weighed 145 pounds.
"Yeah, I miss it," said the 6-foot-1-inch Wariner, who weighs 150 now. "Everyone who plays high school football in the state of Texas and stops, they're always going to miss it."
Baylor was the perfect place for Wariner because of Hart's knack for coaching the 400. After seeing what Hart did for Johnson, Wariner and Darold Williamson, another world class 400-meter runner from Baylor, former University of Texas sprinter Sonya Richards asked Hart to coach her. Last year she became the world's top female quarter-miler.
"Penn State University, they're known as Linebacker U.," said Hart, who is in his 50th year of coaching. "We're known as Quarter-Miler U."
Wariner emerged on the world scene as a Baylor sophomore, putting up times that transformed him from phenom to Olympic favorite in mere months.
"We were just hoping he'd make the relay team," said his father, Danny. "But as we got closer and closer to the (Olympic) trials, with the way he was running, 'He's got a chance.' When he dominated at the trials, then all of a sudden you're thinking, 'Now he's going to Athens, and there isn't anyone there he can't beat.' "
Wariner won the Olympics in 44-flat, the fastest time in the world that year, and claimed a second gold medal in the 1,600-meter relay.
"It didn't hit me until I got home about a week later, when I realized I was going to be turning professional," Wariner said. "I was like, 'I guess I won't be wearing the (Baylor) green and gold no more.' "
Wariner says he always believed he could run with anyone, regardless of color.
"And I think that's how a lot of the young kids growing up should feel," Wariner said, "that they can do anything anybody else is doing."
Wariner's father can hardly believe his son is running on the heels of Johnson, one of the greatest stars in track history.
"Michael is a hero to me," Danny Wariner said. "To think Jeremy is just right there . . . that's amazing."
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