100-meter champ Mitchell getting a relay runaround Lewis' friends want him on 4 x 100 team

July 28, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Subtle intimidation. Back-room maneuvering. Political infighting. Once, those terms described the nomination of a U.S. president. Now, they apply to the formation of its men's Olympic 4 x 100 relay team.

In one corner are Carl Lewis and the Santa Monica Track Club, the sport's answer to Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. In the other is Dennis Mitchell, who's such an outsider he trains with Canadian pariah Ben Johnson.

The Santa Monica agenda appears twofold: Distract Mitchell so that he loses to the club's Leroy Burrell or Mark Witherspoon in Saturday's 100-meter -- and create a spot for Lewis on the relay team.

Lewis, Burrell and Mitchell grew up in the Philadelphia area, and they compete for the United States, but never mind. The relay team is determined by the order of finish in the 100 at the Olympic trials, but never mind that, either.

"It's incredible to me. It's totally out of control," said PattiSue Plumer, a member of the U.S. women's team. "I think they're playing with his [Mitchell's] mind. They're playing with fire. They're going to get burned."

Mitchell, 26, prides himself in turning negative energy into positive results, and he has been experiencing that negative energy since winning the Olympic trials 100 in June, a race in which Lewis finished sixth to become a relay alternate.

The three other qualifiers -- Burrell, Witherspoon and Mike Marsh -- are from Santa Monica. Like Lewis, none of them showed at the U.S. training camp in Narbonne, France, or at recent European meets where the relay team was expected to run.

"I can't say they're playing mind games, but I wish I would know things a lot earlier than they tell me," Mitchell said yesterday. "A lot of things have been just sprung on me. There's never any discussion, it's just said. If not, it's a secret."

Meanwhile, U.S. coach Mel Rosen has the final say in selecting the relay team, which is expected to challenge the world record of 37.50 seconds set at the 1991 World Championships by Andre Cason, Burrell, Mitchell and Lewis.

Mitchell is convinced Lewis will run in one of the heats, if not the final, saying Rosen is "is doing everything in his power to get Carl on." Rosen, however, said Lewis will run only if one of the top four is unable to compete.

That could happen -- Marsh might decline after running the 200, and Witherspoon is nursing a sore Achilles' tendon. But Mitchell's spot, at least, appears secure. He threatened to "make a lot of noise" if jilted, and Rosen publicly supported him.

"Carl's the guy that keeps saying, 'I don't want to replace any of my friends,' and the Santa Monica guys are his friends," Rosen said. "He may want to replace the other guy, but the other guy is the No. 1 sprinter in the U.S."

Rosen, however, hasn't decided a set order or set lineup, a problem because the team needs work on its handoffs after failing to train in Narbonne.

"Yesterday [Sunday], we practiced more combinations than I've ever seen in a relay before," Mitchell said. "Carl was in a lot of them.

"We're five days away from the 100 meters. I can't go out every day and deal with this. We should go out, practice for an hour and leave. . . . It's always two or three hours."

As distractions go, it's a doozy, but Mitchell is bent on shedding his image as bridesmaid. Referring to the entire 100-meter field, he said: "I'm going to put it to those guys like it's never been put to them before."

He grew up in Sicklerville, N.J., the son of a Marine who spent 21 years in the military and served in Vietnam. Track and Field News calls him "Mr. Work Ethic."

"The thing that keeps me going 99 percent of the time is the little system I train with -- training with anger," Mitchell said. "I like to be mad at people. When I'm mad at people, I work to the best of my ability."

Who exactly is he mad at?

"I'm mad at life. Anything that comes in my path, I'm angry at it," said Mitchell, whose personal best of 9.91 in the 100 is third-fastest in history. "In meets, other athletes make me mad the most. I think of the 100 meters as a battle. When I'm out there warming up, seeing other people preparing to beat me, that gets me mad."

He once trained with his twin sister, Denise, under Lewis' parents at a track club in Willingboro, N.J. "They showed me this can be something people remember you by," Mitchell said. But now that he's on the verge of making history, their son is trying to stand in his way.

"I've learned to adapt to it," Mitchell said. "When I step out in a big race, I go in with the attitude that all the Santa Monica guys are going to be there. I had to adapt to it, overcome it or succumb to it.

"I said to myself, 'Dennis Mitchell, you can't let Santa Monica run all over you. You have to adapt, or you'll be one of those forgotten athletes. You have to go out and beat these guys.' "

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