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Record in hand, Powell chases world title

13 June 2007

By Dave Ungrady

Last year, Jamaican Asafa Powell and Justin Gatlin of the United States captivated the track and field world with a compelling drama. Gatlin tied Powell's 100-meter world record in mid-May, and Powell tied his own mark about one month later. After weeks of gamesmanship, the two runners agreed on a rare showdown in late July.

But the hype faded when Gatlin admitted to testing positive to a banned steroid, and the race never went off. With Gatlin now serving a suspension for the drug violation, Powell is primarily motivated to win his first Olympic or world championship title. He is one of three 100-meter world record holders who have held that honor without being an Olympic or world champion since the world championships began in 1983. Six other runners have been an Olympic or world champion and a world record holder.

"My game plan is just to run myself back into the shape I was in last year or in better shape," Powell said during a recent and exclusive interview with WCSN.com. "Just to stay focused and get that gold at the world championships." In just his second race of the outdoor season, Powell will compete Sunday at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. He is set to run the 200 meters against a potent field that includes Americans Xavier Carter, who holds the second-fastest 200-meter time in history; Shawn Crawford, 200-meter gold medalist; Wallace Spearmon, 200-meter world silver medalist; and Jeremy Wariner, the Olympic champion in the 400 meters.

Now healed from an early-season injury, Powell has plenty of chances to work himself into peak form before the world championships in Osaka, Japan, at the end of August. He will compete in the 100 meters at IAAF Golden League Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway, on June 1 and then the Jamaican National Championships from June 22-24.

Powell hopes to alter his frustrating championship history. He was disqualified for a false start in the quarterfinals at the 2003 world championships. That dubious feat normally would attract little attention. But it happened in the same race where U.S. sprinter Jon Drummond also was disqualified for a false start and then refused to leave the track for an extended period.

Powell enjoyed a run of success leading up to the Athens Olympics in 2004. He recorded at least five 100-meter races in less than 10 seconds during the outdoor season leading up to the games, including a best of 9.91. He was a medal favorite in a wide-open event following the drug suspension of former world record-holder Tim Montgomery but finished a disappointing fifth in 9.94.

Powell admits to faulty Olympic preparation. "I put a lot of pressure on myself, people put a lot of pressure on me," he said. "Everyone was saying you have to win at the Olympics, there's no way you can lose. I started saying it to myself. I must win or else I'm going to disappoint a lot of people. Mentally I wasn't prepared. And I needed to stop saying that to myself. I knew that it was an open field and anyone can strike at that time. It's just for me to keep my head on my body and stay focused."

Powell refocused when he set his first world record at a meet in Greece on June 14, 2005. He was also surprised that he set the world record. Powell felt he ran his two previous competitions too hard and did not feel sharp entering the race.

After he set the record, Powell seemed within reach of his first world championship. But misfortune struck again. A strained groin muscle forced him out of the meet.

"After running 9.77, my body wasn't used to going so fast," he said. "Something had to go. Unfortunately, my groin went."

Powell said the groin did not fully heal until February 2006. Still, his 2006 outdoor season ended up as the most prolific of his career. Gatlin ran 9.77 to tie Powell's record on May 12. Powell equaled the record on June 14 and again on August 18. He capped the 2006 season by winning the IAAF World Athletics Final with a 9.89 in early September.

Powell backed out of a few meets in April and May of this year due to poor weather conditions and after he strained a knee tendon in training. On May 29 he won the 100 meters in an impressive 9.97 at a low-key meet in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

"I knew I was in that kind of shape," he said by phone from Yugoslavia the day after the meet. "I've been training for a month now, and I'm making good progress in training, It's been a lot of over-distance training, with some speed work in between. I'm feeling pretty good and I'm happy with the time. Everything wasn't flowing. My 40 meters was excellent, but after that it wasn't flowing as normal."

Powell was born in 1982 in Linstead, St. Catherine, Jamaica, and was one of six boys. One of his older brothers, Donovan, reached the semifinals in the 100 meters at the 1999 world championships. Two of his other brothers died tragically. One was shot while driving a cab in New York City and the other died of a heart attack while playing soccer.

Each of Powell's brother's deaths occurred just prior to the Jamaican National Championships in consecutive years. Paul Doyle, Powell's agent, says those memories make Powell fear tragedy will occur before that meet.

Powell has said a strong Christian faith born from his parents, both pastors, buoys him in difficult times. He has chosen to live and train in Jamaica in large part to remain close to his family members, who live within a 20-minute drive of the sprinter. Familial support will likely be strong for Powell at the Jamaican championships

Powell plans for now to compete in three meets in July. Two of them, July 6 in Paris and July 13 in Rome, are Golden League meets. The third is a grand prix meet in Sheffield, England, on July 15. It was also announced Friday that he will compete in all Golden League meets this season.

Another world record is on Powell's mind. "I just have to be ready and meet that special day," he said. "Everything has to be right. The wind, the crowd, the venue. My body has to be ready for it that day. And when I'm ready, it might go 9.76 or 9.75."

Despite his lofty championship goals and world-record awareness, Powell prefers to apply a simple principle as he pursues his craft. "A lot of times when you think about time, it throws you off," he said. "I think about running properly, and executing the race as best I can."

Powell hopes such a race will lead to his elusive world championship or Olympic gold medal.

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