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BEIJING 2008: JEREMY WHO?

8/1/2008
Brent Humphreys

He runs like water, smooth and pure and fluid, his skinny silhouette resembling one of those line drawings of runners on ancient Greek pottery. His effortless glide betrays nothing but grace, yet right now Jeremy Wariner feels nothing but pain. He's running a 450-meter sprint and must complete it in less than 54 seconds. That's 100 meters every 12 seconds, times four, plus an extra 50 for good measure. An athlete running that fast goes into oxygen debt quickly, and by the 400-meter mark, that debt is a subprime scandal. When he's finished, his screaming muscles will get 10 minutes to rest. Then he'll do it again: 450 in 54. And here, in the heart of Texas, the wind is relentless. It's blowing at 15 mph, and you immediately see a reason for Wariner's shorn head: Waco is where parted hair goes to die.

He crosses the line on time, as always, his slender shoulders never hunching against the agony. His face, sheathed in sunglasses—he owns 30 pairs—is expressionless. Then he shakes his head, cocks it, smiles just a little, and in a voice that's part slacker, part rapper, part good ol' boy and all Texas, Wariner speaks.

"That wind is no joke," he says to training partner Darold Williamson and coach Michael Ford. He sits and rests and readies for the next 450, the next bit of torture he'll endure for a gold medal in the 400 in Beijing. If he wins, he'll set the medal on the mantel in his house, next to golds from the 2004 Olympics and the 2005 and 2007 world championships. It will be more proof that, for the past four years, Wariner has been the most dominant athlete in sprinting's toughest event, a competitor whose focus and ability to rise to the occasion inspire awe among peers.

Maybe this time America will notice.

Twenty years ago, Jeremy Wariner would have been a household name. The Olympics were a big deal then. So was track and field. And Wariner's run to gold in Athens was storybook: A scrawny, shy kid from suburban Dallas joins the track team as a high school sophomore and runs the 400 in 48.8 at his second meet. His speed is innate, although his mom, a paralegal, and his dad, a landscape designer, have no idea where it comes from. The kid is pure fast. He wins state titles and earns a ride to Baylor, alma mater of the great Michael Johnson, a school that is to quarter-milers what USC is to tailbacks.

Wariner fits right in at Quarter-miler U. He even develops his own shtick, wearing sunglasses every race, day or night. As a 20-year-old sophomore, in 2004, he sweeps the NCAA 400, indoors and out, wins the Olympic trials, grabs the gold in Athens in 44.0 and hands off the baton in the 4x400 to Baylor teammate and best friend Williamson, who carries it to a U.S. victory. It's stunning. Wariner is still a true amateur, a Baylor sophomore who can't even accept a shoe deal, the embodiment of all that's supposed to be good about sports.

And did we mention he's white? He's pulling an Eminem without the hair dye, a Steve Nash without the hair.

Immediately after the Games, he turns pro, hiring Johnson as his agent. Then: silence. No Wheaties box. No commercials. No TV movie. So he keeps running. Every year he gets closer to Johnson's 400 world record of 43.18 seconds, going 43.45 last August at worlds. He's ranked No. 1 in the world for four straight years, going on a nine-race winning streak from 2005-2008, a perennial badass in shades. They love him in Europe and wherever the sport is called "athletics." But in America, working hard and running fast and testing clean and looking cool and, yes, being white are not enough.

Ya gotta sell it.

"I'm just glad y'all are paying attention to track and field," Wariner says after his lungs refill and his muscles revive from the 450s. "I'll do anything I can to help with that." As aloof as he looks on the track, Wariner is engaging once he gets talking. He has the same Austin-inflected cadence as Matthew McConaughey, and his running dialogue with Williamson about sprinting, golf, nightclubs, computers and the Cowboys' draft picks makes you feel like you're dropping in on a Baylor dorm-room bull session.

And there's plenty of bull. As Wariner readies for a photo shoot, his training buddies mock his start routine, which has more plot twists—jump two times, go to knees, kick legs back one at a time, wipe off hands, adjust glasses—than the Star Wars saga. "It's like, Get in already!" says Williamson.

"Kinda sad when they're paying so much attention to what I do, isn't it?" Wariner responds. "Kinda tells you something." It tells you a lot about Wariner. He's gotten where he is because he's fast, yes, but also because his focus is sharp. When racing or training, nothing distracts him. It's a Baylor thing.

There's a reason the school holds 18 NCAA 4x400 titles, a reason 10 Bears runners have run the 400 in less than 45 seconds, a reason two (Johnson and Wariner) of the nine men in history to run sub-44 are from Baylor. That reason is Clyde Hart, who's coached at Baylor since 1964. He has the 400 down to a science, writing in an article for a coaching journal, "When an organism is conditioned to the stress of athletic competition, it will be able to perform in that
environment when called upon." Wariner translates: "A lot of what we work on is the mental aspect. One example: We train outside all the time." Rain. Heat. Cold. Relentless, crazymaking wind. Can't do anything about it, so no sense complaining. Just run through it. And the workouts? Lots of quarter-milers do 450s, but they recover between sets. Not here. Ten minutes, and you go again. You know it will hurt. You accept it.

That ethic, coupled with Wariner's speed, has resulted in eight sub-44s, more than any other runner in history. "I've never seen an athlete like him," says Sanjay Ayre, a Jamaican sprinter who trains with Wariner under Ford. "The event is so physically grueling that most people get very nervous, even the top guys. But Jeremy is so mentally strong, he has no fear."

Honing that focus is why Wariner has stayed in Waco. The pace of life is slow, perfect for running fast. His mentor, Johnson, ran for Baylor. So did his manager, Deon Minor, and his coach, Ford. Besides, it's home, and Wariner is tight with his parents, who are an hour and change north in Arlington. He loves Texas, so much so that he can't abide that Roy Williams, an Oklahoma Sooner, plays for his Cowboys. So much so that his new signature shoe from Adidas, a high-tech spike engineered specifically for his stride, is called the Lone Star.

Yet Wariner's legendary focus has a price: He was always so driven that he refused to show personality. After winning in Athens, he didn't even muster a smile. Those close to the sport wondered why he refused to open up. Was he shy? Was he arrogant? Or maybe he was afraid he'd lose the respect of his peers if he sold out. In truth, Wariner is shy, and he stuck close to his Baylor friends because he was winning and didn't want to screw up a good thing. But over the past couple of years, he has matured and gained confidence. He's now ready to extend himself, and Minor is set with the sales pitch: "Get to know the white boy with the sunglasses who's cool. And who can run fast."

His friends sold him on the idea first. "We know Jeremy," Williamson says, "and we'd see how happy he was after winning a big race. But nobody saw that on the track. One time I told him, 'You just ran a 43. Why aren't you excited? Loosen up, dude.'" And so in the past year, Wariner helped design his spikes, then posed on the Great Wall for an Adidas ad. He also signed with AT&T, and has done interviews about his hobbies: golf (he's building a house next to a Dallas course), dogs (he owns a Saint Bernard named Heidi) and cars (Mercedes S600 and Lincoln Navigator). "I'm a whole different person than I was four years ago," Wariner says. "I like showing who I am. But it took my friends coming at me to make me realize it's okay." This year, he even talked openly about breaking Johnson's record. "Michael wants to see his record broken," Wariner says, "and he wants me to do it."

That Wariner needs to sell himself shows the hole track has dug for itself since the Cold War ended. The average American sports fan would struggle to name a track star outside of the BALCO case. Sports editors ask which is more boring, track or field? In Europe, Wariner autographs pictures that fans mine from online archives and gets goose bumps racing in stadiums filled with 40,000 fans. In Waco, he sits unrecognized in a popular Mexican restaurant. "Track is the sport of all sports," Williamson says. "But skateboarders get more publicity than we do."

AT The Adidas Track Classic, in May, the LA crowd doesn't merely show up late; it barely shows up at all: The 10,000-seat stadium is a third full. But Wariner, fresh off an easy victory in 44.42 seconds, bounces around signing autographs and posing for cell-phone snapshots. He's likewise patient with the media, answering every question, including doping queries endemic to the modern track press conference and an occasional question on race that is particular to Wariner. His gold medal run in Athens was the first in the 400 by a white U.S. sprinter since Mike Larrabee won in 1964. Some track watchers have wondered how a Caucasian sprinter could win without drugs. While nobody in track competes without suspicion anymore, Wariner points out that he has never tested positive and welcomes more scrutiny—and you can't accuse the six-foot 155-pounder of unnatural bulk.

Wariner gracefully handles other aspects of the white-guy topic as well. It helps that he has a good go-to line about being the only person of his race in the field: "I don't think it bothers Tiger Woods too much when he tees it up." That shy kid behind the shades is now a full-fledged ambassador. But for how long?

At the start of 2008, Wariner announced that Hart would no longer coach him and that he had hired Ford, Hart's assistant at Baylor. For Wariner, it was a business issue. For Hart, it was about pride—he didn't think he deserved a pay cut after guiding Wariner to his second world title. Critics smelled weakness and wondered whether Wariner would survive the change, never mind that Ford had helped coach Wariner for years and that the workout regimen would change little.

And right on time, a great new American quarter-miler arrived, fresh out of Virginia's Tidewater region. LaShawn Merritt has the classic 400 runner's build: tall and strong, like a free safety's. He's a better pure sprinter than Wariner, with better times in the 200. He's outgoing and comfortable with the media. And he's not intimidated by the guy in the sunglasses. On June 1 in Berlin, Merritt beat Wariner for just the second time in 13 races, with a scorching, early-season 44.03, edging Wariner's 44.07. The defeat set the stage for a summerlong slugfest between the 24-year-old king and the 22-year-old challenger. Merritt beat Wariner again, convincingly, at the Olympic trials final, a race in which Wariner's usually flawless strategy fell apart. He allowed Merritt to get away in the first 150, according to Johnson, then surged too soon trying to catch up. Merritt ran away on the homestretch, finishing two-tenths ahead in 44.0. An angry Wariner blew off the postrace press conference, and old media hands grumbled that the shy—or was it arrogant?—JW was back. Johnson said he'd seen Wariner that irked only one other time, after he'd lost a race three years ago. So was Merritt in Wariner's head? "No," says Johnson. "If he'd run a good race, that would be hard to take. When you blow it, that's easier."

Apparently, Johnson knows something about the quarter-mile, because Wariner came back with a vengeance. "Just because I lose a race," Wariner says, "don't count me out. It fuels my fire." First, he held off a charging Merritt at the finish line in Rome on July 11. Then he hammered Merritt over the final stretch a week later in Paris, running a season-best 43.86 despite easing up at the finish. They won't meet again until the Games, when the question of who's faster will be settled. In the meantime, the bickering on track message boards between fans of Wariner and Merritt sounds like college football chatter.

Which is just the way Wariner likes it. "Our sport has to make sure the top guys run against each other so people see real rivalries," he says. "Too many guys avoid each other."

Don't expect Wariner to duck anybody. Thanks to his rivalry with Merritt, the Olympic 400 is shaping up into a marquee event. So much the better; Wariner doesn't mind the attention anymore. He wants you to know he can let the public in without losing his focus, his shaded gaze on his own race.