They're Back

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1996

They're Back

Twelve gold medals, 21 world titles. But for four of this century's finest athletes, the road to Atlanta begins in Atlanta with this month's U.S. Olympic Trials. Where, as at least one of them knows, anything can happen.
By Jere Longmam

What would you give to have seen Jim Thorpe run, jump, and throw in the 1912 Olympics? Or Babe Ruth swat fastballs into the bleachers, then tinkerbell around the base paths? Indeed, some moments in sports are transcendent--and at the same time fleeting. This month, eyes will be cast toward Atlanta for the U.S. Olympic Trials, where Jackie Joyner-Kersee, arguably the greatest woman athlete in history, will compete in the long jump and the heptathlon, possibly for the last time. If Joyner-Kersee finishes in the top three in the heptathlon, her marquee event--and most experts say she will if she stays healthy--the three-time Olympic gold medalist will advance to the Games to face, among others, a surging 23-year-old Syrian named Ghada Shouaa. If she fails to qualify in either event, Joyner-Kersee, who was named by her grandmother after Jackie O. 34 years ago, will head home to St. Louis and put track and field behind her. Despite her grace and strength, Joyner-Kersee hasn't always made it look easy. She has often been afflicted with injury, and lately her chronic asthma has worsened, sapping her breath and at times the trademark bounce in her stride. At last year's U.S. Track and Field Championships, she actually wore a surgeon's mask in an effort to avert an attack--and still won. Now she says she's well, having found the right combination of rest, work, and physical therapy in the off-season. "I don't have any doubts," she says. "I don't want to sound arrogant, but I think I'm ready."

"I don't think the question 'Who's the world's greatest athlete?' is relevant anymore," says decathlon world-record holder Dan O'Brien. "Since 1991, I've been in a league of my own." This might be true, but it begs a question: Just where was the world's greatest athlete on June 27, 1992, the day he failed to clear his opening height in the pole vault at the Olympic Trials in New Orleans? The flop is infamous, and because of it O'Brien didn't go on to compete in Barcelona. This month in Atlanta it's redemption time, but O'Brien doesn't see it that way. "I think of it as taking my place in history," he says rather proudly. Indeed, nobody has ever been better at decathlon. Not Bob Mathias, not Bruce Jenner, not Daley Thompson. O'Brien possesses near-world-class speed, but unlike most sprinters he can also throw the shot, discus, and javelin. He owns the world record of 8,891 points. He has three world titles. Experts say that someday he will surpass 9,000 points in a single decathlon, a mythological barrier like the 30-foot long jump. And yet will anybody be betting serious money on Dan O'Brien this month? Will Dan? He asserts that he's "not afraid of the pole vault." And to help with the "concentration problem," he's reportedly taking medication for attention deficit disorder. Massage therapy and deep-breathing exercises are also part of his regimen. Of course, on his coaches' orders, O'Brien won't be taking questions about New Orleans. As coach Rick Sloan says, "You keep telling a person he has a crooked nose and big ears, he starts thinking that way." Good luck, Dan.

He is taller than most sprinters, and his long, lean body seems to unfold from the starting blocks like a string of wallet photographs. His MO has always been to make up for slow starts by finishing with a burst from the afterburners, but lately there's been a gap at the finish line as well. People are talking: Is the most feared man in track and field washed up? Will he even qualify for the Summer Olympics? "Don't be deceived," says Jon Drummond, one of America's top-ranked 100-meter sprinters and someone who knows firsthand about Lewis's potential to strike. "He has a magic wand, and he always waves it at big events." Indeed, though Lewis for the first time in his career is considered a long shot to qualify in the 100 meters and 200 meters, the 34-year-old three-time Olympian fully intends to make it to the Games in the 100, 200, and long jump. A top-four finish in the 100 could also qualify him for the 4x100-meter relay. His body certainly looks up to the task. He's been hitting the weights hard, and he seems practically rebuilt from top to bottom. So is adding four more gold medals to the stash wishful thinking? Perhaps, but in some ways one has to pity the cocky Top Guns who draw lanes on either side of the Old Man at the Trials. Unadulterated speed and worriless youth won't help them cope with his disconcerting thousand-mile stare. "I haven't been myself in a while," Lewis says. "But I'm anxious to be myself again."

His torso arches backward slightly, like the thumb of a hitchhiker. By purists' standards, it may not be pretty, but Michael Johnson in midflight is something to behold. With piston-pumping knees and icy demeanor, Johnson is for all practical purposes unbeatable in two of track's most coveted events: the 200 and 400 meters. The real question, of course, is whether he can win both events in a single Olympics, a feat that's never been accomplished in men's track. Perhaps in hopes of catching a glimpse of history, officials have juggled the schedule, assuring Johnson of adequate rest between races. It still won't be easy. In both races, sport is distilled into its essence: speed, strength, head-to-head competition. In the 400, you also have the pain factor. Your legs, pumped full with lactic acid by the third turn, throb, and the rest of your body feels like a toy top that's begun to wobble. "You want to stop and lie down," Johnson says. Despite the pain, great 400 runners find an extra gear. Watch Johnson in the final turn: arms pump faster, cleats slap louder, then he's catapulted toward the finish. How do you beat him? Strategies tend toward the fatalistic: hang on like a bicyclist drafting a semi, lean hard at the finish...and hope. But no one ever seems to come close: Johnson hasn't lost a 400-meter race since 1989. Can he be beaten? His rivals simply shrug.

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