SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Today's 200-meter dash has been billed as a classic climax to the U.S. track and field trials for the Olympic Games. For months, anticipation has been building over the clash between world-record holder Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene, the world's fastest human.
Johnson ran the fastest time in yesterday's preliminaries, but felt a twinge and iced his right leg moments after stepping off the track at Cal State Sacramento's Hornet Stadium.
Even if the 200 loses some of its luster in the form of a Johnson injury, the event has turned into a landmark for Carver High graduate Bernard Williams, who turned professional last week and won the first of seven preliminary heats in the 200 yesterday.
Williams will run for the Los Angeles-based HSI stable, which is also home to Greene, the world-record holder in the 100, and the two other men who will represent the U.S. in the sprint in the Olympics.
Yesterday was also significant for James Carter, Williams' former Baltimore rival, who earned an Olympic berth in the 400 intermediate hurdles.
Eight days ago, Williams finished seventh in the 100 final while wearing a University of Florida uniform. Yesterday, Williams was decked out in a new Nike outfit, and he said he'll soon be training in Southern California for HSI under John Smith, who has guided Greene to a world record of 9.79.
Smith was once the world's top quarter-miler. Now he's the coaching guru at HSI, which he said stands for "Handling Speed Intelligently."
"I told Maurice [Greene] that I was staying in school, but some things have changed," Williams said of a conversation he had with Greene after the Baltimorean had won the NCAA 100 title last month.
"I talked to my mom and dad about the decision I faced. If God gives you talent, you've got to take advantage of the decision."
Williams, 22, was a serious student in college, but there will be time to finish his sociology degree later. He has an outside chance of being selected to the Olympic team as a relay alternate. Even if he isn't, his status as the best young sprinter in America has been validated by his new affiliation.
"I'll go back to Florida and take care of some matters there," Williams said. "I need to talk to the coaching staff there about what I'm doing, and thank the people. Then I'm going to go home to Baltimore."
Williams didn't intend to run the 200 here, and is still competing only because the Gator sprint coach entered him in the event. He came out relaxed and ran a personal best of 20.22 in the preliminaries. Only Floyd Heard and Johnson ran faster.
Williams is among the afterthoughts in the semifinals, where by the luck of the draw, Greene and Johnson are paired alongside each other in the same semi - Greene in lane four and Johnson in five. Johnson got that preferential draw because he ran the fastest preliminary time - 19.89 - but it might have come at a cost.
"It [a quadriceps muscle] went away on the straight," Johnson told NBC. "Hopefully, it will be OK. I felt it through the curve, and then it went away. I'm not sure what to say now. I felt it cramp a little in the curve. I hope [today's] schedule won't be a problem, but I don't know right now."
Today's schedule lists less than two hours between the semifinals and final of the 200.
Greene declined to comment after he handled his preliminary. Last year, he claimed that Johnson ducked him when he ran only the 400 at the national championships.
"There's an old saying," HSI coach Smith said. "In order to be No. 1 and stay No. 1, you have to train like No. 2."
Johnson has spent much of the last decade as the undisputed No. 1 in the 200. One of the defining moments of the 1996 Olympics was the 19.32 world record he laid out in Atlanta. Earlier that summer, on the same track, he first gained the record, with a clocking of 19.66.
That's the only world record set by the men at the U.S. trials since 1976.
Nine other finals will be contested today. Marion Jones goes for her third victory at the trials in the women's 200, and the women's 800 holds the prospect of sisters Hazel and Joetta Clark-Diggs finishing in the top three, along with their sister-in-law, Jearl Clark-Miles.