What Marilyn Knight remembers most about the 1996 Summer Olympics is how little sleep she got. Knight would go to bed early to get up for her job as a licensed practical nurse at a Baltimore nursing home, only to be awakened a couple of hours later by her son, James Carter.
Carter, then a recent graduate of Mervo and on his way to Hampton (Va.) University later that summer, could not contain his enthusiasm in watching Michael Johnson and Allen Johnson on television during their gold-medal performances in Atlanta.
"He would call me, `Mom, Michael Johnson's on, Allen Johnson's on, the girls are on,' " Knight said recently, chuckling at the memory.
Knight is hoping for a few more sleep-deprived nights herself next summer when the 2000 Summer Olympics are telecast from Sydney, Australia. This time, she is hoping to be watching her son running in the 400-meter hurdles.
Carter, now a redshirt sophomore at Hampton, has emerged in recent months as one of the top two collegiate hurdlers in the country and an outside contender for a spot on next year's U.S. Olympic team.
"I don't think it's been that big a surprise," Carter, who'll turn 21 tomorrow, said last week by telephone. "But it's definitely become a reality."
Having won at the recent Penn Relays, Carter has not lost to another college hurdler this year. He lowered his personal-best time from 52.0 seconds last year to 49.92 at this year's Florida Relays, where he finished behind three professionals. He'll have three more meets before next month's NCAA championships in Boise, Idaho.
"It's what I expected," said David Boyd, in his fourth year as track coach at Hampton after three years at Maryland Eastern Shore. "It's because of his dedication. Once he makes up his mind about what he wants to do, he's very successful."
Most figured that Carter had this potential, given his status as a two-time All-Metro performer at Mervo. But it was in the 400 meters, not the 400 hurdles, that Carter excelled. As a senior, Carter was considered one of the country's top quarter-milers, having run the third-fastest time (46.6) among high schoolers that year.
As well as Carter performed on the track, he struggled in the classroom. It got to the point where his mother threatened to pull him off the team during his sophomore year unless his grades improved. They did, but his grade-point average still wound up .2 below NCAA freshman eligibility standards.
"A lot of the schools that were recruiting me backed off," said Carter, who had been contacted by North Carolina, South Carolina, Baylor and Florida.
Hampton became his only option.
Carter's freshman year was not much different from that of athletes in other sports who are considered "non-qualifiers," having to pay his own way and unable to work out with his teammates. But unlike basketball and football players who have trouble finding competition, Carter was able to compete in open meets that were not restricted to collegians.
"I didn't get discouraged," he recalled. "I'm a believer in things happening for a reason. Maybe it was destiny for me to be here and become a 400-meter hurdler. I can't say I would have become that somewhere else, but at some point I would have tried it. It's different from the 400 meters. It makes me think all the way around, being that there are 10 hurdles."
As a redshirt freshman last year, Carter finished seventh in the 400 hurdles in the NCAA championships. He has been the most dominant track performer in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference as a sophomore, having set MEAC championship point records at both the indoor and outdoor meets.
"The difference between last year and this year is working hard," said Carter.
Not that Carter can't improve his work ethic in one particular area -- the weight room.
"It's quite foreign to me," said Carter, who is 5 feet 11 and 185 pounds. "It's definitely going to catch up with me at some point. I actually don't know what I should be doing in there. I don't want to go in there and do something I shouldn't and get hurt."
For now, Carter's versatility in running everything from the 100 to the 800, as well as the 110 and 400 hurdles, along with relays, has earned him the soon-to-be cliched nickname "Slash." Could Carter have come this far this fast had he been just one of many former high school stars at a high-profile program?
"The schools don't make the athlete," said Boyd, a former All-America long jumper and sprinter at Fisk University. "The athlete makes the school."
Carter's performance this spring has certainly raised his -- and Hampton's -- profile. He was recently mentioned in Sports Illustrated among its "Faces in the Crowd." But Carter has quite a bit of work left before he completes his dream.