- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

ATHENS — Watch Jeremy Wariner run and it’s hard to ignore the obvious: He’s really, really fast.

Wariner is white, too, which makes him something of an anomaly in elite American sprinting. Still, the Baylor University junior wants to be known for his speed, not his skin.

Last night was a good start.

In a smooth, commanding performance that belied his relative inexperience, Wariner cruised to victory in the 400-meter dash final, leading an all-American sweep at Olympic Stadium.

“It doesn’t matter what race or gender you are,” said Wariner, who ran a personal best of 44.0 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year. “It’s your ability.”

Wariner became the sixth consecutive American to win the event and finished ahead of college teammate Otis Harris (44.16) and fellow American Derrick Brew (44.42), who placed in the same order they did at last month’s Olympic trials.

“We talked about the sweep the last two or three days,” Brew said. “We all went out and executed what we were looking for. That was good. We made history.”

The three shared an embrace and a subdued victory lap around the track, a marked contrast to the posing, preening U.S. 400-meter relay team at the Sydney Games.

“That was a big thing,” Harris said. “If we did sweep, we talked about going out and being respectful to other countries and the spirit of the Olympics.”

A 20-year-old in just his fifth year of running track, Wariner has been pegged as the heir apparent to world record holder Michael Johnson and is only the second man to win the NCAA indoor, outdoor and Olympic trials 400 in the same year.

The retired Johnson has acted as a mentor of sorts to Wariner, who is tutored by Johnson’s old coach, Baylor’s Clyde Hart. After the race, Johnson clambered down from the stands and leapt over the stadium railing to give Wariner a hug.

Hart simply asked Wariner for his left shoe, to be displayed alongside Johnson’s Olympic-winning footwear in a Baylor trophy case.

“Like Mike did when he won,” Wariner said, referring to Johnson’s 400 victories in Atlanta and Sydney. “Just being in the same sentence with Michael Johnson is great. He’s been in the same position, told us what to do and what to expect. It’s helped out a whole lot this year.”

Harris led Wariner for most of the race, fading slightly in the last 50 meters. As the teammates barreled toward the finish, Harris pumped his arms furiously, teeth clenched. Wariner flowed, his stride unchanging, then lifted his arms in triumph.

A slight (165 pounds) but remarkably fluid runner, Wariner wanted to play professional baseball but switched to track at the suggestion of a high school football coach — in part because his first 400 race was clocked at sub-50.5, a terrific time for a neophyte.

“I loved playing football,” Wariner said. “[But] I made the best decision of my whole life [switching sports].”

During his freshman year, hamstring and foot injuries forced Wariner to miss the NCAA outdoor season; after his Olympic victory, some reports estimate he could earn as much as $200,000 by turning pro.

Earlier in the week, Wariner said he was “99 percent” sure he would return to school but that he plans to talk the matter over with his parents, Hart and Johnson following the Games.

In the meantime, he still has another race to run, the 1,600-meter relay.

“It’s better than what I expected,” Wariner said of winning gold. “It’s a great honor being in front of the nation and the world. I’m glad I could bring back one gold. Hopefully, I’ll bring back one more.”

Though the 1,600 relay final will be held Saturday evening, Wariner again plans to wear his signature wraparound sunglasses, a habit he picked up during his successful outdoor season.

“I started winning, and I haven’t taken them off since,” he said. “I don’t care what I look like. I just want to go out there and do my best.”

In more ways than one. Though Wariner is the first white American man to win a sprint medal in 40 years — since 1980, only two of 30 Olympic sprint golds have been won by whites — he insists his skin tone is nothing noteworthy.

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

One race at a time. After the race, Grenada’s Alleyne Francique ran into a group of reporters under the stadium.

“That,” Francique said, “is the fastest white guy I’ve ever seen run.”

More like the fastest guy, period.

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