Lewis plays prince Olympics: As the trials get under way, the one-time king of track and field is in fine form in his quest for a fourth berth in the Games.

June 14, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- His athletic obituary was written here in March, when he finished last in the preliminary heat of a 60-meter dash at the U.S. Indoor Championships. The resurrection has followed in the ensuing months at outdoor meets across the country, as his times came down and his confidence shot up.

It was during the first meet held at Atlanta's Olympic Stadium in mid-May that Carl Lewis delivered the most important reaffirmation to his comeback by running his fastest time in the 100 meters in four years. And it will be on the same fast track that Lewis hopes to deliver a similar message when the U.S. Olympic trials open today.

If this year's Summer Games are expected to belong to legend-in-the-making Michael Johnson, the man who is trying to become the first ever to win the 200 and 400 meters in the same Olympic competition, then the 10-day Olympic trials will be orchestrated by Lewis. His quest for a fourth Olympic team begins with the 100 prelims late this afternoon.

"I feel I can beat anybody in any race," Lewis said May 18 after a wind-aided time of 9.94 seconds placed him second behind Dennis Mitchell in a 100-meter race so close it needed a photo-finish to determine the winner.

Four years after qualifying for only the long jump at the Barcelona Olympics, Lewis is considered to have a legitimate chance in each of the three events that have shaped his remarkable career. He is not and likely never again will be King Carl, but he is closer to his past than he's been in a while.

"They haven't put me on the team," Lewis said about his recent performances, which also included winning the 100 in the Texas Relays and running his best 200-meter time (20.19) since 1993 in the Mount SAC meet in California in April. "They haven't made me a medal favorite. They haven't done anything. But what they've done is restore my greatest asset, and that is my confidence. My confidence is back supreme again."

It is not the kind of confidence -- arrogance would be a more apt description -- that accompanied a then 23-year-old Lewis to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where he backed up his bravado with gold medals in the 100, 200, long jump and 4 x 100 relay, for which he ran the anchor leg.

Supporters and detractors

And while Lewis hasn't quite gone from being the overwhelming favorite to merely a sentimental one, he knows that at least half the audience will be rooting for him this time. It wasn't that way before, and Lewis, who will turn 35 on July 1, is smart enough to understand he hasn't been the people's choice for much of the career.

"Of course, there are people out there who hope I win 20 medals and people who hope I stumble and break my leg," he said. "That's what makes life special, because both of them are thinking of me."

His personality change has been compared with former tennis star Jimmy Connors, who went from being reviled to revered during the latter part of his career. Connors' act often was perceived as a con, a means to marketing himself.

Though he certainly has had his share of endorsements, those who know Lewis say he simply has grown up.

"He's more settled, more comfortable with himself and who he is," said Tom Tellez, who has coached Lewis since he came to the University of Houston from Willingboro, N.J. "He could have walked away and been proud of what he accomplished, but Carl is always looking for a new challenge."

Said Lewis: "For me to say I haven't made mistakes in life would be ludicrous. Absolutely, I'm not perfect. I don't pretend to be. Did I say things that I shouldn't have said? Absolutely. But at the same time I try to look back and instead of saying, 'Gosh, I shouldn't have said that,' I try to use it to help me deal with situations better in the future."

He has given hours upon hours to charity, much of it unnoticed. He privately has helped fund the Olympic dream of others, most recently a group of women's marathoners from a small club outside Chicago. They left the bitter Illinois winter and went out to the warmth of Southern California shortly before one of its members, Jenny Spangler, became the surprise winner of the U.S. women's trials.

Climb back to top

If reaching the top more than a decade ago wasn't challenging enough, doing it again is the greatest test of Lewis' career. If sheer talent got him there the first time, then a new-found interest in weight training and a vegetarian diet will be among the reasons Lewis gets to Atlanta with a chance to add to his already glittering legacy.

Not that Lewis seems to care about the legacy. It includes winning eight gold medals, one short of the Olympic record shared by runner Paavo Nurmi, swimmer Mark Spitz and gymnast Larissa Latynina. Even when many were dismissing him as an Olympic hopeful, saying he was done after that dismal afternoon in Atlanta, Lewis didn't seem to pay attention.

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