Wariner - a perfectly executed race


Wariner - a perfectly executed race

Tuesday 24 August 2004

Athens, Greece - Jeremy Wariner was poised, polite, and answered all of the questions put to him by the media after his 44.00 victory in the 400 metres to cap a most unforeseen magical season. He showed no signs of emotional whiplash, even though the slow-paced Wariner life of January bore little resemblance to the late-August version.

Lack of international experience

In the month since his win at the US Olympic Trials, Wariner’s name has been at the top of the year’s 400m lists. Those in the US who saw his impressive 44.37 in Sacramento knew that the 20-year-old Texas was no freak of nature. Definitive wins in the three rounds started talk of an Olympic gold. After all, doesn’t the US “own” the 400 metres?

But how would the rest of the world regard him?

For a young runner who himself points to his lack of international competition (“I’ve never been farther from home than Barbados or Jamaica”), the Athens experience under the media microscope was going to be much more than anything he had previously experienced at the Texas Relays, the NCAA Championships, or, for that matter, the US Olympic Trials.

That Wariner dispatched the rest of the world in the Olympic Stadium on Monday evening with such remarkable composure, is as much a reflection of the Wariner persona as it is in the skillful mentoring given him by his coach of less than two years, Clyde Hart, the head track coach at Baylor University for the past 41 years.

Ready-made runner

Not coincidentally, it was Hart who took a young Michael Johnson out of a Dallas high school in the mid-1980s and turned him into the pre-eminent long sprinter of our age. And Hart again had to go no farther than the Dallas metropolitan area to find the man who would assume Johnson’s Olympic 400m crown.

As incredible as it may seem now, Hart’s acceptance of Johnson as a stipend athlete was regarded at the time as a calculated risk. Unlike Wariner, whose high school reputation was bolstered by two Texas state titles in the 200 and 400, Johnson had compiled no such record while a high school athlete.

In short, Wariner came to Hart as a ready-made runner, much more so than Johnson had.

Giving up Football

Whereas Johnson was a one-sport athlete, Wariner had played football ever since the fifth class. Running was only a fitness diversion from football, the sport tantamount to a second religion in Texas.

Wariner’s willowy build (1.83m and 73kg) had caused him no problems with the contact sport in high school, but the university version of football could have seen him meeting up with behemoths capable of inflicting week-long headaches. It’s difficult for a Texas kid to give up football, the one sport which commands full respect in the Lone Star State, but Wariner’s move to Baylor was as a track-only athlete.

Modest beginnings

Considering his accomplishments in the past days, Wariner’s first year at Baylor must be regarded as modest by comparision. His best time was a 45.13 at a competition in Arizona in mid-April, with most of the university team’s outdoor schedule still ahead. At season’s end, he finished last in the NCAA Midwest regional competition, the gateway through which athletes must pass enroute to the NCAA Championships.

But Wariner salvaged his season with a second-place finish at the US Junior championships, leading to a silver medal at the Pan Am Junior championships in Barbados a few weeks later. Perhaps this trip to the West Indies, home to so many top exponents of the one-lap event, was the spark which pushed him to another level in 2004.

Close team bond

Another may have been the close friendship he forged with his Baylor teammate, Darold Williamson, during their first year together. Wariner admitted at the US Trials that, despite his win, he suffered an empty feeling when Williamson missed an Olympic spot with his fourth-place finish in 44.70, only 0.01 from the 44.69 of Derrick Brew.

“I wish Darold (Williamson) and I could have gone 1-2, but he still ran a great race. Hopefully, he’ll be part of the relay team,” said Wariner, almost wistfully, after the US Trials. He’ll get part of his wish later this week during the relay competition.

Going out hard

The format of a Wariner race - running hard for the first 200m and then maintaining speed and momentum the rest of the way - is the same formula Hart used successfully with Johnson.

But Hart also knows that he cannot overlay this template on top of Wariner fully because he doesn’t have Johnson’s 200m speed. However, the master coach had nothing but praise for the way Wariner constructed his gold-medal performance.

“It was a perfectly executed race,” was Hart’s critique of his protégé’s tactics in the Monday night final. “His 200 split was exactly what we wanted (21.3), he waited to make his move like he wanted, and he brought it home like he wanted. That’s one of his great attributes - he’s got a clock in his head.”

Wariner also admitted that his usual habit of taking a big lead over the first 200 was altered for the final. “I had a chance to break 44,” he admitted, “but the way the wind was, I had to adjust my race a little.”

Agonisingly near to sub-44

If there was any disappointment at the agonising final time of 44.00, ever so close to the ultra-elite benchmark region of the event, Wariner kept it to himself.

“I wouldn’t say I was disappointed. I just won the Olympic gold. I can’t be disappointed with my time. I have years to come. Breaking 44 will come some day, and when that day comes, I hope I can continue to keep breaking 44.”

Racial stereotypes

With his victory, Wariner became the fastest-ever 400m runner not of African descent, but it’s a topic he feels uncomfortable discussing repeatedly.

“I’ve lost count of all of the times it has happened, going all the way back to high school,” he said of questions put to him about the racial stereotypes associated with 400m runners. “I don’t let it bother me or let it affect the way I run.”

Even in politically-correct America, the subject arose after his win at the US Trials, and teammate Otis Harris chimed in to make a bipartisan statement on the subject.

“Race has nothing to do with it,” declared Harris. “I’m so glad when people take down stereotypes. That’s one of the most important things in athletics and our attitude in our country, and that’s what Jeremy’s doing.”

Credit Jeremy Wariner for using the vast Olympic stage to start putting the subject to rest.

Ed Gordon for the IAAF