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Powell relaxed, and good things followed

12 September 2007

He ran and felt well in qualifying heats, and entered the recent world championships in prime condition. But by the end, all the pressure proved too burdensome for Asafa Powell.

Some of the expectations of a world record and a first gold medal at a world championships or Olympics were self-imposed. Others emanated from the desires of well-wishers and fans who wanted to witness Powell standing atop the podium for the first time. A similar scenario unfolded at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when Powell was a favorite to win a medal and finished fifth.

"It was the expectations of other people I let get to me," Powell said, reflecting on his third-place finish at the world championships last month in Osaka. "Everyone was expecting a world record. I was trying to meet the expectations of other people."

Powell spoke Wednesday by phone as he received a therapeutic massage in his hotel in Brussels, Belgium, where he scheduled to run the 100 meters at a Van Damme Memorial Golden League meet Friday. He spoke with calm reflection and a sense of contentedness as he juxtaposed one of the biggest disappointments of his running career in Osaka with a redemptive run four days ago in the 100 meters at a meet in Italy, when Powell registered his fourth world record in 9.74.

"[In Osaka] I didn't run my own race," he said. "I was trying too hard to break the world record. I tightened up twice, my whole body from my toes to the hair on my head. I just gave up. I decided I wasn't going to win the gold medal. I thought I was sure of a second place finish and eased up. That was a big mistake."

Powell said the disappointment at the world championships lasted about one day. He promptly conferred with his coaches, Steven and Paul Francis, and realized that he needed to remember how to relax more to run his best.

"When you are not relaxed, when you try too hard to achieve something, you can get to a point of freezing up," Steve Francis said by phone from Europe, where he was traveling with Powell. "If you look at a tape of the world championship final, and look at the small details like his stride length and his facial features, you realize they are the signs of a sprinter who is not relaxed."

Francis feels the pressure of not winning a world or Olympic championship forced Powell to run rigidly in the final after he ran so well in the qualifying heats.

"In 2004, he went into the Olympics as a favorite," Francis said. "People are calling him choker, unable to deliver. These things will impact the psyche of any individual. The weight of getting rid of that bogey gets heavier each time you don't make it. It would have just meant a whole lot more to deliver that world title. He overestimated the amount of effort he had to put out to deliver that."

Two weeks later, at a Grand Prix meet in Rieti, Italy, not far from his summer training base in the seaside resort town of Lignano Sabidoro, the Jamaican Powell found his irie, and his running rhythm flowed with great results. His 9.74 world record in a qualifying heat felt free of the restrictions that hampered his world championship final race, and later prompted a party hosted by employees of his base hotel, Fra i Pini.

"I was thinking only of executing the race," he said. "I was just trying to get myself into a normal running form. The only thing I was focusing on was to get out of the start and relax to the end. I felt the feeling you're supposed to get. You're not supposed to feel fast. You're supposed to feel relaxed."

Francis saw a profound difference in Powell's physical demeanor in Rieti compared to the 100-meter final in Osaka.

"In Reiti, his face was loose, his stride length was as it should be," he said. "We pointed that out to him in a discussion. You can't try hard to run fast. You just need to execute what you do in training."

Hank Palmer, a 22-year-old 200-meter specialist from Canada, witnessed Powell's triumph from a unique and fresh perspective. He entered the 100 meters Saturday night as an alternate after another athlete withdrew from the competition and ran against Powell for the first time. Although Palmer finished fifth and failed to qualify for the final, he enjoyed a treasured experience.

"It was an amazing experience to be around this guy warming up and then running in the same race," Palmer said.

Palmer remembers how Powell's blistering start unsettled him. "Out of the blocks, he was gone," he said. "It almost threw me off that he was so far ahead of me at 20 meters. I lost total concentration and my balance. Once I got up and saw him going, I tried to keep on pushing myself. I knew the closer I was to him, I'd get a personal best myself."

Palmer, who finished third in the 200 meters at the 2006 Canadian championships, ran a season's best 10.35 in his first race since injuring a hamstring earlier this year. His personal best is 10.28.

"It motivates me being in that race to keep on running and try to do more personal bests," he said. "I wish I could run with him every day."

Francis feels Powell could have broken the world record again in the 100-meter final in Rieti. He ran 9.78, the fastest time recorded with a 0.0-meters-per-second wind. A 1.7 meters-per-second breeze guided Powell in the world record race, .3 under the allowable limit.

"It was the first time I ran so fast twice in one day," Powell said. "It makes me feel good, that I have a lot in me. I can go a lot faster. Sometimes I think ridiculous things, like I can run 9.68 or something like that."

Powell has run two personal records in past Van Damme meets. He just might run that ridiculous race if he accomplishes that feat again Friday.

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