It only seems as if Greg Foster has been around forever, the master hurdler winning at the World Championships in 1983, 1987 and 1991 while picking up a silver medal in the Olympics and several broken bones along the way. And yet, he's probably at the top of his game at the Methuselahan age of 34.
"All things considered, last year was probably my best year and I didn't even go as fast as I can," said the man who has been ranked either first or second in the world for the last decade or so. It wasn't the times he ran or the victories he posted so much as the fact he was able to run hard in each race.
Foster, who heads the star-studded hurdles field at the Mobil 1 Invitational meet at George Mason University Sunday (1 p.m.), insists if his career ended tomorrow, he'd mark it an A-plus. At the same time, he knows track people might not view it that way for one reason: the Olympic gold medal that has escaped his grasp.
"I'd be a fool if I said it didn't matter to me, because the Olympics mean a lot of everyone," he said. "It is my focus for this year, of course, but I'm treating the [Olympic] Trials and Barcelona as close as I can to the way I prepared for the World Championships last year."
And 1991 was nearly flawless throughout. "I ran every meet I was scheduled to both indoors and out," Foster continued. "In the past I would have been upset if things didn't go exactly right. I'd get thrown off. But my experiences have taught me how to deal with almost anything that comes along."
At the 1984 Olympics in his hometown of Los Angeles, Greg was favored for the gold. He was beaten by teammate Roger Kingdom. That was OK (mostly), because Kingdom ran a fantastic race. Same situation four years later: Foster favored, but he didn't even make the U.S. team, two broken bones in his arm and a leg injury stopping him in the semifinals at the Trials.
That's when things seemed to turn around for Foster. Once seen as an ominous, brooding giant who took his longtime rivalry with Renaldo Nehemiah much too seriously, suddenly Greg was relaxed, talkative, a guy who appeared to have a handle on life.
"I had to learn how to deal with that 1988 disappointment," he said. "I did and everything I do now is more meaningful. There was a time when track and field was everything to me. I think I needed that obsession because I learned from it. Track is in perspective now well behind the welfare of my family."
Not only is life away from training and competing better, so is the practice, travel and everything else involved with staying on top of the heap as a hurdler. "They don't expect as much out of me anymore because of my age, so it's fun to come through," he said.
"Bobby [coach Kersee] sets up my training schedule and, basically, it's go out and do what you're capable of doing today. Same goes in a race. Do what you can and don't worry about winning and losing. He'll look over the field and tell me what time I'm going to have to do to win. If it's not there, it's not there."
Which is extremely rare because, as Foster puts it, "If I go out and run my time, I'm going to win. These days, an important part of my training, maybe the most important part, is avoiding injuries."
Since his junior year at UCLA in 1978 and while chasing Nehemiah, Greg has been posting either the first or second best times in the world each year.
Last summer, at the Outdoor Championships, he ran a 13:06, his best time in 10 years. His 13:03 is the third best all-time. Indoors, he has been even more dominant, holding the record for both the 60 meters (7.36) and 50 yards (5.88) while being second best at 50 and 55 meters. He won his sixth national indoor title last year, moving him ahead of Hayes Jones and Willie Davenport into the second spot behind the legendary Harrison Dillard.
"Finally getting a gold medal would mean so much to me now because of age," Foster said. "It would be a nice capper for the years I've had between Games and the World Championships. If I had to quit before the Trials in June, though, I'd say I've had a great career."
No one will argue even if he does end up without a gold. Remember Ron Clarke?
The way it works out, Foster is no shoo-in come Sunday in Fairfax, Va. His old buddy Nehemiah is aboard and so too is Jack Pierce, the old Morgan Stater he beat by an eyelash in Rome last summer for the world title. The meet will be televised live for two hours (1-3 p.m.) by WETA (PBS).