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World Record Erases Glaring Hole in Michael Johnson’s Track Resume

By Amy Shipley
THE WASHINGTON POST -- SEVILLE, Spain

As the finish line neared and his competitors fell back, Michael Johnson, without turning his head, peered left, searching for the track clock. About to win his fourth straight world title in the 400 meters, Johnson wanted to see if he had also reached the one milestone he had chased, unsuccessfully, for nearly 10 years.

The clock, Johnson’s only competition Thursday night, told the Olympic and world champion he’d finally broken Butch Reynold’s 11-year-old world record. Johnson’s time of 43.18 seconds topped Reynold’s 1988 mark by .11 seconds. He so dominated the world track and field championships race that silver medalist Sanderlei Claro Parrela of Brazil trailed by about 10 meters, a ridiculously large margin in a race so short.

“Coming off the curve, I knew I had a big lead,” said Johnson, 32. “I had to just keep telling myself, ’Don’t panic.”’

When Johnson realized what he’d done, he raised his right index finger and let out a yell. But once he came to a halt, there was no leaping or wild celebrating. Johnson simply looked satisfied. He posed for photographers by the clock, which flashed “New WR: 43:18.” Spotting an American flag in the stands, he walked over and happily slapped hands with about 60 fans with front row seats at Olympic Stadium.

In erasing what Johnson earlier this week called a “glaring” hole in his resume, Johnson showed a sense of purpose and determination. He now owns world records in both the 400 and 200 (19.32 seconds), a mark he set during the 1996 Olympics. In winning his eighth world championship gold, Johnson also tied Carl Lewis on Thursday night for the career lead in that category.

When he finally made his way around the stadium for his victory lap, carrying a small American flag, Johnson took his time. Unlike Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, who celebrated his 1,500 victory Tuesday by sprinting with his nation’s flag, Johnson walked. This, he figured, was a moment he wanted to savor after a year in which he has battled nagging hamstring problems.

“I’m proud of myself for being able to come back,” Johnson said. “I didn’t tell a lot of people, but my coach and I sat down at the beginning of the year, and he said, ’What do you want to do this year?’

“I said, ’Break the world record in the 400.”’

Said Clyde Hart, Johnson’s coach since his college years at Baylor, “When Michael sets a goal, he’s pretty hardheaded.”

The 400 record has been particularly difficult to achieve. Before Reynolds set the world mark in 1988, Lee Evans had held the record for nearly 20 years. Evans ran a 43.86 at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Johnson looked as if he could have broken the record during Tuesday’s semifinal heat in which he coasted -- amazingly -- to a time of 43.95. He said he worked during his three qualifying heats to perfect his first 100 meters, taking care not to go too fast out of the blocks, a common mistake among those 400 runners who also compete at 200 meters. His goal for the first 100 meters was running it in 10.9 seconds. With that accomplished, he said, he tried to relax over the next 200 meters.

As he rounded the final turn, he was a picture of intensity, pushing forward as his competitors seemed to be running in place.

“Coming home, I just tried to hold my form together,” he said.

The hot night didn’t bother him; after all, he trained in Texas this summer. “It’s 107 in Dallas,” he said. “So this is OK for me.”

Johnson acknowledged that his chase for this record had become exceedingly difficult since the U.S. track and field championships in June. When he pulled out of the 200 meters there because of a hamstring injury, he was accused of trying to duck a matchup against star sprinter Maurice Greene.