Kingdom continuing to clear career hurdles Third Olympic gold again in his sights

June 21, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- There was magic in his name and an air of invincibility surrounding his persona. From the moment in 1984 when he upset Greg Foster in Los Angeles to win his first Olympic gold medal, and for much of the decade, Roger Kingdom was the dominant figure in the 110-meter hurdles and one of the most luminous in the track-and-field world.

He won another Olympic gold medal in Seoul in 1988.

He was ranked No. 1 in the world five times in seven years.

"He was the man," said Allen Johnson, then an aspiring decathlete growing up in Burke, Va., now ranked second in the world in the 110 hurdles.

And then he was gone.

All it took was one unfortunate misstep to rob Kingdom of his chance to three-peat, to become the first hurdler in Olympic history to win three straight gold medals. But the severe injury, suffered while playing pickup basketball in April of 1991, eventually did more than that. It took away Kingdom's identity.

"I felt like an outcast," Kingdom recalled earlier this year.

Kingdom's brilliant career was as shattered as his right knee. After undergoing surgery twice in the next five months -- the second time to repair his torn anterior cruciate ligament -- Kingdom's first comeback began the following April. But it was clear he wasn't the same.

His aggressive style seemed tempered.

His confidence was shot.

Though he somehow made the finals at the 1992 Olympic trials in New Orleans, Kingdom couldn't finish the race. He crashed into the ninth hurdle and pulled up a few yards later, barely able to walk. He had to be helped off the track by a friend. His future seemed even more clouded.

"To be honest," said Kingdom, "that was the lowest point I've ever been at in my career."

Kingdom can say that with a small hint of a smile now, and a sense of accomplishment for what he has done since. In many ways, the second coming of Kingdom has been no less spectacular than the first. And with it, Kingdom now hopes to finish what he began when his knee gave out by winning another gold medal, this time here at the 1996 Olympic Games.

It will be a long shot even for Kingdom to get that far. After winning gold medals in both the U.S. championships and Pan-Am Games last year, and a bronze at the world championships, Kingdom has competed with mixed results this year. His most recent race was on a last-place finish on the same Olympic Stadium track he'll find himself on today when competition begins in the 110 hurdles of the 1996 trials.

But even getting this far has been a hurdle in itself for Kingdom. There was another injury, this one to the left knee, which forced him to miss most of the 1993 season and caused his performance to plateau in 1994. And then there was the competition, which saw Kingdom passed in the world rankings by Johnson and fellow American Mark Crear, as well as Britain's Tony Jarrett and Colin Jackson.

"I heard more than a few people say I was done, I was finished," said Kingdom, 33. "I went to track meets and friends of mine said, 'I thought you retired.' That's been the motivation for me coming back. There was a lot I had to prove. When I disappeared, the hurdles sort of went on the back burner. At one time, it was the event, along with the 100 meters. I felt it was important to bring it back to the forefront."

The Olympic Trials are a homecoming of sorts for Kingdom, who grew up in Vienna, Ga. Should he make it to the Olympics, the homecoming will be for the rest of the country to see a familiar face in the spotlight. "It's not often that we see in our lifetime the Olympics in this country twice," said Kingdom, who now lives outside Pittsburgh. "This would be a dream come true to walk on the track in my home state."

As a promising hurdler on the way up, Kingdom looked at Foster and former University of Maryland star Renaldo Nehemiah as his role models and eventually as the event's elder statesmen. Now he enjoys being held in similar regard by Crear and Johnson. And just as it's apparent with the older stars here, like Carl Lewis and Mary Slaney, Kingdom wouldn't mind beating his younger opponents one more time.

"I'm still going to be a thorn in their side for a couple of more years," he said. "I know Greg was that for me."

Said Johnson, "He'll be around 'til 2000. For him to come back from such a major injury, it shows you what kind of athlete he is. My hat's off to him."

It hasn't been easy. Despite a rigorous weight-training schedule to strengthen his legs and prevent injury, Kingdom feels pain in his knees every time he gets down in the blocks. And every time it's about to rain. "I used to hear my grandparents say when I lived in Georgia, 'It's about to rain,' " recalled Kingdom. "They'd say, 'It might not be tonight, but it's going to rain.' I now know that feeling."

Kingdom would like to know another feeling. An old familiar one. A twice-repeated thrill of stepping up on the podium to have an Olympic gold medal draped around his neck. What would another one mean to him? Would it be different than it was in Los Angeles or Seoul?

"I think it would even be bigger," he said. "One, because people have put me in this underdog role. And two, because coming back from all this, being the first person ever to win three gold medals [in the 110 hurdles], that would definitely be something that will stick out. I feel like I have an excellent shot. It can be a game of luck. You just don't know what can happen."

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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