NEW ORLEANS -- His sprints have been infrequent and ordinary this season, but there is always a great danger in minimizing Carl Lewis. He has been around so long that his career must be measured in years, not in seconds.
No one is more adept at peaking for a big race, no one has a better sense of timing, no one is more resourceful at providing a transcendent moment in track and field.
When some were ready to write him off at last year's U.S. championships, Lewis pushed Leroy Burrell to a world record at 100 meters, then grabbed the record for himself later at the world championships.
And even when Mike Powell finally broke Bob Beamon's unbreakable record in the long jump, Lewis took his satisfaction in becoming the only man to jump beyond 29 feet three times in one meet. So afraid was Powell that Lewis might jump beyond his new mark of 29 feet, 4 1/2 inches, that Powell pressed his palms together, praying until Lewis' final jump came up a few inches short.
No one seems concerned about Lewis' numbers this season. Not about his age, 30. Or his best time at 100 meters -- a pedestrian, wind-aided 10.06 seconds. Or his only race at 200 meters, a sluggish 20.43 seconds.
Only three runners from each event will make the U.S. Olympic team. At the moment, Lewis' times would not qualify at either 100 or 200 meters. All that will change over the next 10 days at the U.S. Track and Field Trials. Of that almost everyone is certain, including Lewis and the people who will run against him.
"Carl is one of those once-in-every-hundred-year athletes," said Burrell, Lewis' training partner in Houston. "He has 12 years' experience. He can turn it on and off. He'll be ready. He can do everything he needs to do in the heats, and be ready for the finals."
The first and second rounds of the 100 meters are scheduled today, with the semifinals and final to be run tomorrow. Lewis has run the 100 only twice this season. His one legal time of 10.12 seconds is far off his world record of 9.86 seconds and well behind the 1992 American best of 9.93 seconds run by his Santa Monica Track Club teammate, Mike Marsh.
"Each [trials] has gotten tougher; '88 was more difficult than '84. Of course, '92 will be more difficult than '88," Lewis said.
If he seems worried, though, it's not evident in his face or his words. In fact, Lewis said he's more confident than ever about his abilities in the 100 meters. He doesn't need races to gauge himself, he said, not with Burrell and Marsh training beside him every day in practice.
"My training is better than it's been in the past," Lewis said. "We haven't done anything different, but we stepped up the level. When you have people of that nature, you're going to step up the level. As one gets stronger and faster, that person takes the lead, then someone else takes the lead. The intensity has been raised because it's an Olympic year.
"I've been around so long, you just go out and run. I've had many great years and I feel I can have the best one I've ever had this year."
The 200 meters will bring the first-ever showdown between Lewis and world champion Michael Johnson. Lewis won a gold medal at the 1984 Summer Games and silver in 1988. Johnson was unbeaten in two seasons at 200 meters until last week, when Namibia's Frank Fredericks edged him in a race in Rome. Lewis is co-holder of the American record at 19.75 seconds, while Johnson's best time is 19.88 seconds.
The 200 may be Lewis' most difficult ticket to the Olympics. Marsh is the 1992 American leader at 19.94 seconds; 17 Americans have run faster than Lewis' 20.43, posted last week in Indianapolis. However, in anchoring Santa Monica to a world record in the 4x200-meter relay at the Penn Relays, Lewis was clocked by some as running his 200 split in 19.2. So he can't be counted out.
"No one is invincible in this sport," Lewis said. "I've learned that. Anyone can get beat at any given time. Anyone who says, 'No one can beat me' is crazy."
On Wednesday, Lewis and Powell will renew their spectacular long-jump rivalry. When they last met, at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo, both Lewis' 10-year winning streak and Beamon's 23-year-old world record were soundly broken. Both Lewis and Powell are leading the world again this season. Powell matched Beamon's former record of 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches in a wind-aided jump on May 16 in Modesto, Calif., and Lewis jumped 28-7 1/2 , also wind-aided, a week later in New York.
Before Powell's record leap in Tokyo, Lewis had considered retiring from the long jump. Now he has renewed enthusiasm and dedication. He now trains for the event once or twice a week instead of once or twice a month.
"I feel I can jump farther than he has jumped," Lewis said of Powell.
There is some uncertainty about Powell; he pulled a hamstring muscle with that jump in Modesto last month and has since pulled out of two meets as a precaution.
"He's jumped well; he's confident I'm sure," Lewis said. "If I expect to go compete in the long jump and not think he's going to perform well, it's crazy, because he's going to jump well. He's in a good position. His jump in Modesto took a little monkey off his back. I think he'll be ready."
He'd better be.