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Watts wins gold medal in race he loves to hate U.S. also gets silver in the 400 meters


BARCELONA, Spain -- He hated the race. Hated it so much that when a coach told him to run the 400 meters, he sprinted to the football field. Hated it even more when on a hot night in Tokyo, he crossed the finish line and got so sick that his jaw became dislocated.

"Rigor mortis," he said, ticking off the list of reasons not to run the 400. "Bear on your back. My first experience was a nightmare."

And here he was, 16 months after running his first 400, and there was a gold medal around his neck and another Olympic record beside his name.

Last night at the 1992 Summer Olympics, Quincy Watts of the United States beat the race, and beat the fastest field ever assembled.

The 22-year-old senior from Southern Cal won the gold in 43.50 seconds, lowering the Olympic record for the second time in three nights, and moving just .21 of a second behind Butch Reynolds' world mark of 43.29.

It was an astonishing performance in a race that was every bit as dramatic as the Ben Johnson-Carl Lewis 100-meter duel in Seoul, South Korea, four years ago.

What you had was Watts picking off the field runner by runner with a burst down the backstretch.

Teammate Steve Lewis, the 1988 Olympic champion, won the silver in 44.21. Kenya's Samson Kitur took the bronze in 44.24.

Had it not been for football, Watts might never have made it to Barcelona. Two years ago, USC track coach Jim Bush tried to move Watts from the 100 to the 400.

"I said, 'Nah, I'll go out for football,' " Watts said. "I was a sprinter, and you know sprinters. We run away from the 400."

So Watts joined the USC football scout team, taking hits from the first-team defense five days a week. "When track guys go out for football, everyone looks at them differently, like they are going to quit," he said. "You have to take your licks. There was a lot of pain. If I could deal with the scout team, I could deal with anything."

Watts returned to the USC track team in March 1991 and ran his first 400 in 47.7. He showed enough promise that UCLA coach John Smith began to give him pointers and eventually guided his career. Watts even made it to the world championships in Tokyo, but left the track sick, and with that dislocated jaw. But he learned a lesson: how to get in shape and beat the race.

Watts powered his way through the U.S. trials in June, ignoring the storm created when Reynolds overturned a two-year drug ban with a Supreme Court order.

In Barcelona, Watts moved from out of the shadows. He won his semifinal heat in 43.71, jogging the last five meters to eclipse the 24-year-old Olympic record of 43.86 set by Lee Evans in Mexico City.

"In the semifinals, I was relaxed and focused," Watts said. "But in the finals, I was tight. I wanted to cross the finish line first."

The race was a mixture of such speed and courage that there was a gasp from the screaming crowd near the finish.

Watts, running in Lane 4, made his move after 200 meters, the point in the race that defines the character of the competitors. Danny Everett, the 1988 bronze medalist who was eliminated in the semifinals, couldn't believe Watts' sprint.

"It's a mental block out there," Everett said. "At 200 meters, you have a tendency to take a deep breath, relax and start again. You have to realize you're not as fresh as you were before. You have to maintain your momentum."

Watts did. But just barely. He didn't get the world record because he went out too fast in the first 200.

"He pushed too early and you pay dividends later," said Smith, his coach. "He was paying dues. He still doesn't know how to run the race."

But after picking off every runner in the backstretch, Watts put on one last burst in the final 50, finally pulling ahead by seven meters, crossing the finish with his face contorted in pain.

For a few seconds, he appeared dazed, disappointed even.

"It took awhile for me to realize I won a gold medal," he said.

The world record will have to come on another day.

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