SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- James Carter's first acclaim came when he competed for a Baltimore high school that doesn't have a track.
Now he'll run in the greatest sporting event in the world, the Olympic Games.
Carter's ticket to Sydney, Australia, became a reality yesterday at the United States track and field trials, a crucible in which only the top three finishers in each event earn the right to represent the nation at the Olympics. He placed third in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles, an event he had to be coaxed into trying three years ago.
Safely across the finish line, Carter clapped his hands and reclined on the track, his arms shielding his eyes from a blazing midday sun. A minute passed before an official came to check on his condition.
"He asked me if anything was wrong," Carter said. "I told him nothing, that I was just trying to let it soak in."
The story of Carter's path to the Olympics, to be held Sept. 15-Oct. 1, is an improbable one.
A scar runs down the middle of his chest, a reminder of the major surgery he underwent to have a thyroid tumor removed when he was in the seventh grade. Myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease, had left an energetic, athletic child unable to pick up a fork and eat dinner with his mother, Marilyn Knight.
He went to Mergenthaler Vocational High -- Mervo-- and because there is no track there, he jogged up and down Hillen Road, to Morgan State or City College, to train. Carter is 22, and he wasn't alive in 1972, the last time a graduate of a Baltimore-area high school competed in Olympic track and field. That was Dulaney High's Bob Wheeler, who competed in the 1,500 meters.
NBC announcer Jim Gray interviewed winner Angelo Taylor and runner-up Eric Thomas after yesterday's race, but then track's time slot ended, and America didn't get to hear the wonder in Carter's voice over what he had accomplished.
Taylor and Thomas told him to join them on a victory lap, which turned into a walk for the overwhelmed Carter.
"My life changed today," Carter said. "It's going to change more."
Life will change for his family, too. Carter's mother watched and taped the race on television at her Northeast Baltimore home. By 8 p.m., Knight and her daughter Sumaya, 7, had replayed the footage some 20 times.
"I am ecstatic," said Knight, who spent yesterday fielding calls from friends and family. "They say, 'Are you on cloud nine?' I say, 'I'm on cloud 59. I'm somewhere over the rainbow.'"
Knight, a licensed practical nurse, said she will go to Sydney to see her son in the Olympics "somehow, some way."
If Carter does not object."[If] it will interfere with his focus, I won't go."
When NCAA rules left Carter ineligible to compete for Hampton (Va.) University last spring, he turned professional. He ran for the Maryland Elite club, and made $5,000 in three meets, the last two in Europe.
Because Carter hadn't run fast enough for USA Track and Field to pay his way, he paid his own way here, and his late travel arrangements left him with an airfare purchase of more than $1,000. Now agents want to represent him, and shoe companies want to support him.
"You can't believe the opportunities this is going to open up for James," said Maurice Pierce, an assistant coach at Hampton.
Even though Carter withdrew from college this year, he remained in Hampton to train under Pierce. A professor in the university's biology department who assists with the track and field team there allowed him to stay in his home.
Now he will find financial stability, and be able to call himself an Olympian.
Carter had some success running for a recreation center as an 11-year-old, but then had to stop playing sports after myasthenia gravis robbed him of energy and led his mother to take him to Sinai Hospital for treatment and then to the University of Maryland Medical Center for surgery.
"I remember playing tag in the neighborhood, and all of a sudden being unable to keep up," Carter said.
"My condition got so bad, I had trouble walking and my left eye closed on me once. One night at dinner, I couldn't move my jaw."
Carter regained his health and dreamed of playing football for Mervo. Renard Taylor, an assistant coach in both the football and track programs there, recruited him for the spring sport. His natural talent was honed in a program that, despite its disadvantages, won a Maryland state championship for longtime head coach Fred Hendricks in 1996, when Carter was a senior.
With a best of 46.5 seconds in the 400-meter dash, Carter was one of the nation's fastest high schoolers, but he wasn't even the city champion in that event, losing to Walbrook's Dameon Johnson.
Carter's academics limited his college opportunities. He was unable to compete collegiately in 1997 as a freshman at Hampton, where an assistant coach persuaded him to try the 400 hurdles. By last year, he was the 10th-rated American and had lowered his personal best to 49.45.
Carter improved his time throughout the spring.
He went under 49 seconds for the first time in Friday night's semifinals, then dipped to 48.46 in yesterday's final. The race includes 10 hurdles, and at the ninth, Carter was even with two other men in the desperate battle for third place.
"I was side by side with Joey Woody and Sherman Armstrong over the ninth hurdle," Carter said. "I kept my power and finished strong. Track and Field News predicted that I would finish fourth, and I was not going to be the first guy who doesn't get to go to the Olympics.
"This has been in me since last year. It's just taken a while to get out."
Before he left his mother's home in Northeast Baltimore to go to Hampton four years ago, Carter spent a summer week shouting at his mother, updating her on how his heroes were doing at the Olympics in Atlanta.
Now he's going Down Under, on a team with some of the world's most famous athletes, such as Marion Jones and Michael Johnson.
"My mom said she's going to write a book," Carter said.
She already has many intriguing chapters.
Sun staff writer Maria Blackburn contributed to this article.