Hurdler Carter gets warmed up

I don't get any respect.

Dating to the day when David took down Goliath, it's the oldest motivational ploy under the sporting sun, but in the case of James Carter, there's credence behind the claim.

The Baltimore native and 2000 Olympian is coming off a landmark season in the 400-meter hurdles, so he was taken aback to hear that Track and Field News predicted the reigning national champion would finish seventh in this weekend's U.S. championships at Stanford University.

Is Carter offended by that form chart?

"Yes, very much," he said.

Is he motivated by it?

"Very much so," Carter said, "but they've been wrong about me ever since I've been running. They didn't pick me to make the American team in 2000, and they didn't pick me for the final in the Olympic Games."

He flew under the radar onto the international scene, so Carter is the perfect American standard-bearer for the 400 hurdles, which have shriveled to a low-profile endeavor a generation after Edwin Moses authored his win streak.

Carter's path to the 2000 Olympics tugged at the heart, as he overcame myasthenia gravis (a neuromuscular disease) and a high school, Baltimore's Mervo, that didn't have a track when he graduated in 1996.

In Sydney, Australia, however, Carter made a taunting gesture at the end of his semifinal win and was booed. Properly contrite, he finished fourth in the final in 48.04 seconds, .23 of a second shy of a medal.

That remained Carter's personal best until he went on a tear in 2002.

A year ago this weekend, he won his first U.S. title. Last August in Zurich, Switzerland, he chopped nearly a half second off his personal best with a clocking of 47.57, a step behind Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic and the eighth-fastest time by an American.

Carter ended his best campaign with a World Cup win.

Sanchez was ranked No. 1 in the world by Track and Field News and Carter was No. 3, the top American on that list.

"After an injury halted my 2001 season, I went home and healed," Carter said. "I made sure that 2002 wasn't going to be a repeat.

"I pay so much more attention to nutrition than I used to. I don't eat fast food as much. I stay home and cook more. I've built my endurance, and done a lot of technique work.

"If you watch the Olympic final, I over-strided to the last hurdle. That cost me getting under 48 seconds. If you watch the tape of my 47.57, I'm coming in quicker over the hurdles. There are still a lot of things I didn't do correctly in that race. I didn't get out as fast as I should."

Why is Carter such an afterthought in an event that will see its national final run Sunday?

Angelo Taylor, the Olympic gold medalist, is back hurdling after focusing on the flat 400 last year.

And Carter has been on the shelf for over a month, having strained a tendon behind his left knee in the Georgia Tech Invitational. He backed off midway through the race, but still jogged in second behind Bershawn Jackson, a 19-year-old from Miami who ran 48.51, the second-fastest time ever by an American junior.

That meet came a week after Carter turned 25. He lives in the Virginia Tidewater and is a volunteer assistant coach at Hampton University, where he competed for a few seasons in the late 1990s.

Carter is feeling fit and isn't fretting about his long-term prospects, which are on a fortuitous pattern of fine even-numbered years. He did great in 2000, greater in 2002 and doesn't have to mention that the long-range goal is the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

The pinnacle this year is a trip to Paris in August for the 2003 world championships. The top three finishers at the U.S. championships will qualify.

"I want to defend my national title, but making the world team is more important," Carter said. "Being the U.S. champion is great. Being the world champion would be even better."

At a glance

What: U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships

Where: Cobb Track and Angell Field, Stanford, Calif.

When: Today through Sunday.

TV: Saturday, 4 to 6 p.m., chs. 11, 4; Sunday, 4 to 5:30 p.m., ESPN2.

Local athletes entered: James Carter, Mervo High graduate, 400 hurdles; Joel Brown, Woodlawn High, 110 hurdles; Kyle Farmer, Oakland Mills, 200; Jesse O'Connell, Westminster, 800; Bernard Williams, Carver, 100 and 200; Torrence Zellner, Woodlawn, 400 hurdles.