Carter's obscurity just another hurdle

Olympics: James Carter, who came out of a Mervo program that didn't even have its own track, opened eyes by winning a U.S. team berth in the 400 hurdles, but he has been doing that for a long time.

September 10, 2000|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN STAFF

After James Carter earned a surprise berth on the U.S. Olympic track and field team, he listened to overtures from agents and made plans to cash in on his newfound celebrity.

Seven weeks later, Carter hasn't been in another 400-meter hurdles race. He got in a squabble with his local club, missed out on the big-money meets in Europe and instead returned to anonymity in Hampton, Va.

In other words, it has been business as usual for Carter, who overcame a decade's worth of adversity to become the first Baltimorean in a generation to earn a berth in Olympic track and field. The Mervo High grad remains a mystery to much of his competition, but Carter figures that Llewellyn Herbert, Angelo Taylor and company had better be prepared for him to continue to chip away at his times and become a medal contender.

"I haven't had a target on my back at all this year," Carter said. "Nobody knows me, except that I keep dropping my time. No one knows what to expect from me, and that makes me dangerous."

Carter is the mystery man in the one-lap barriers. He didn't think that would be the case July 22, after he charged to the final American Olympic berth. Carter thought that he would sign a deal with a new agent, head overseas and continue his progression in ritzy locales such as Zurich and Monaco.

There was a catch. Carter's contract with Maryland Elite doesn't expire until after the Olympics. He complained that the club wasn't seeing to his racing needs; the club countered that it was, and that he needed to be patient. Last month, Carter announced that he had severed ties with Maryland Elite, but he won't be free to work a new deal until October.

If Carter's fuzzy affiliation is a negative, everything else in this memorable summer has been a positive for a 22-year-old who has seen some hard times. As a child, he was stricken with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease. His thymus was removed at the age of 12. Carter earned national prep honors running for a high school, Mervo, that won't get a track until next year.

A condition that caused pain in his lower right hip was diagnosed after the U.S. trials. A therapist made the necessary adjustments, Carter resumed a serious training load and he's in the best shape of his life. He arrived in Sydney last weekend, healthy and confident.

"I didn't spend the summer going back and forth to Europe," Carter said in a late-August phone interview. "There'll be only one instance of jetlag to deal with. I haven't been running all-out races, but I have been consistently training."

Carter is no longer a student at Hampton University, but he retreated there in late July for solitude and to resume his partnership with Maurice Pierce, who's an assistant coach at the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference program. The two first hooked up last fall, after Carter learned that he was academically ineligible. That situation led him to turn pro.

"James was unsure of training with the men's team here," Pierce said. "The university is primed to have someone run fast in May and June, at the end of the college season. He was talking about making the Olympic team a year ago, so we needed to reverse the focus of his training - prepare him to run fast in the summer and September, this month."

Carter's development has to frighten the world's other premier hurdlers. He began this year with two meaningful seasons in the event and a personal best of 49.45, nearly three seconds off the world record. Since then, he has entered five meets, run seven races and lowered his standard an amazing six times.

He went 49.42 at a meet at George Mason University in May, 49.10 in Atlanta later that month. Over six days in June, he dipped to 49.08 in Czechoslovakia, then 49.03 in Switzerland. At the U.S. trials, Carter went 48.87 in the semifinals and came back less than 18 hours later with a 48.46 in the final.

Only three men in the world have dipped under 48 seconds this year. Carter plans to be the fourth next week, even if it's only 70 degrees at the Olympic Stadium.

"I've just been doing what I needed to do in practice, testing myself there," Carter said. "When I do certain times by myself, I think what I can do against competition. One day, I ran a 500 meters by myself in 61 seconds. The idea is to be able to handle three hard races at the Olympics."

Carter will be reunited with his mother Down Under because Marilyn Knight's employer has arranged for her to go to Sydney to see her son run. In early August, he kissed her goodbye and headed back to Hampton, because things had gotten too crazy in Baltimore.

There was the young lady who had never said boo to him at Mervo, and suddenly wanted to be his friend. Carter couldn't sit in the school's lobby without being bombarded by custodians seeking an autograph. When he was standing in line at the Avenue at White Marsh to see "The Nutty Professor," a woman said "You're that track guy." A foundation for myasthenia gravis wanted a spokesman.

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