Baltimore hurdler Carter retires

Special to The Baltimore Sun

- The pain of it all was written on James Carter's face.

It wasn't the physical pain of crashing into a series of 3-foot barriers. Or the psychic pain of failing to finish an event he had done a zillion times in an honors-filled track and field career that had carried him around the world.

It was the pain of coping with the realization that the 400-meter hurdles final of the 2009 USA Outdoor National Championships at Hayward Field was almost surely the last major race of his life.

His athletic lifetime had been spent trying to outrun the timing mechanisms of his sport that separate success at the highest levels from the achievements of others by the tiniest of increments.

But now - at just past 4:15 p.m. Sunday - James Carter, 31, announced that the race was over.

"This is it, I'm done," the Mervo alumnus told a small media gathering in the passageway of the tent that served as the "mixed zone" of the meet.

He had dealt with mixed zones - the places where athletes get to tell their post-race stories free of the formalities of news conferences - everywhere from Sydney to Doha to Athens to Osaka, and a whole lot more.

But this mixed zone was different.

As one athlete (Carter) tried to analyze the emotions of a farewell to spiked shoes, three other athletes, Bershawn Jackson, Johnny Dutch and Angelo Taylor, the newly minted American 400-meter hurdles team, were positioned nearby, trying to analyze their chances of success at the world championships in Berlin.

"I never wanted to finish up this way," Carter said. "I always wanted to finish up on the podium, with a medal, at some major meet, an Olympics especially, somewhere, anywhere.

"Physically, I think I can still run my event with the best in the world, but there's a lot more involved in this sport these days."

Oh, the ability to run a lap around a rubberized track, clearing 10 3-foot barriers at a speed many couldn't handle with no hurdles in the way, was always a special talent Carter possessed.

From his days at Mervo to his college campaigns at Hampton (where he had been a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion and NCAA bronze medalist) to his decade as a professional runner sponsored by Nike, the event itself never posed major difficulties.

It has been the economics of a sport that make it brutally hard to be a professional athlete just shy of household-name status. Athletes rely in part on sponsorships to help finance their training.

"My Nike contract's going to be up in September," Carter said. "I really don't think they're going to renew it. And without a contract, there's no way you can stay a professional track and field athlete, not in this day and age."

So Carter will return to his current home in North Carolina, continue to serve as a volunteer with the Tar Heels' track and field program, and take some time out before determining his future pathways.

"I've got two little ones to raise, too," he reminded, the thoughts of daughter Taleya, 5, and son Tamere, 1, now coming front and center.

As he makes all those determinations, he'll have all those memories of his career to fall back on.

"James Carter has had a magnificent career," said USA Track and Field communications coordinator Tom Surber. "He'll be recognized as one of the great 400-meter hurdlers in history. But nobody can run forever, at this level. There comes a time."

Carter made his first Olympic team in 2000 and placed fourth in Sydney.

In 2001, he again made America's team, getting to the semifinals of the 400 hurdles at the Edmonton world championships.

His 2002 season was a huge one. He dipped under the 48-second barrier for the 400 hurdles for the first time, all the way to 47.57, won his first U.S. nationals gold medal, and then won again at the World Cup.

But there were setbacks in 2003. A fourth-place finish at nationals kept him off the U.S. worlds team for Paris.

The 2004 season was much better, part of it, anyway. He won at the USA Olympic trials, but settled for fourth place at the Athens Games.

In 2005, the world championships moved to Helsinki, and Carter was cheered as a silver medalist. He had earned his trip to Finland with his third place in the USA nationals. It was also the year he ran his lifetime best, 47.43.

He claimed a third place in the USA nationals of 2006 but was at the top of his game for much of the 2007 season, winning his third nationals title and flying off to the world championships in Osaka, Japan, full of gold-medal visions.

It just wasn't to be. He was thrown offstride in a mini-tangle with a Polish runner and relegated to fourth place in a race he thought he would win.

By now, an assortment of injuries began catching up to him, along with a posse of talented youngsters. A fourth-place bow-out in the semifinals of the 2008 Olympic trials in Eugene was a huge downer.

And these 2009 nationals in Eugene would represent the end. He had advanced easily through the first round and the semifinals. But his stride pattern in the final was never really "on." He started banging hurdles, beginning with No. 5. By No. 8, with Jackson, Dutch and Taylor far in front by now, he realized it was all over and failed to finish the race.

"I have no regrets about any of this, he said. "Things happen, often quickly. Just two years ago, I won my third national title and had the fastest time in the world [47.72.]

"So that's the way it goes. I'm a versatile person. There's a lot of other things I can do. Track's been pretty good to me. Maybe not right now, though."

James Carter Born: May 7, 1978, in Baltimore

Height: 5 feet 11

Weight: 185 pounds

Family: Daughter Taleya, 5, and son Tamere, 1

Home: North Carolina

High school: Mervo

College: Hampton

Event: 400-meter hurdles, lifetime best 47.43 seconds in 2004 world championships

Career highlights: Two-time Olympian in the 400 hurdles, finished fourth in the 2000 Sydney Games and the 2004 Athens Games; won the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials; won 2002 U.S. nationals and World Cup

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