Skip to main content
Original Issue

Keeping Track

Former quarter-mile champ John Smith now oversees other sprinters in their quest to excel

Around the final turn of the UCLA track, A dozen men, one after another, are driving themselves through their workouts' last, lactic-acid-tightened sprints. At 20 mph the staccato scraping of their spikes is unnerving, perhaps primordially so. They are upon you and past so quickly that they seem coursing, clawed predators.

You recognize many of them. Mixed in with the Bruin varsity sprinters and hurdlers are British Olympians Marcus Adam, Tony Jarrett and John Regis, and Los Angeles Raider receiver and world-class hurdler Willie Gault. Olympic 400-meter champion Quincy Watts shoots past, followed a few seconds later by Olympic 400-meter hurdle champion and world-record holder Kevin Young. To account for the presence of all these lions, you have only to listen. For they all run in the company of a voice.

The voice gives them intermediate times. The voice reminds them of their keys to maintaining form. When quarter-miler Jason Rouser's back begins to arch, he hears, "Chin down, jaw level. You're trying to run into the sky."

It takes a moment to locate the source of this advice, and when you do he appears to be simply another athlete, though an arresting one in pure white shorts and T-shirt, perfectly muscled, with a face memorable for its expressiveness. This is UCLA sprint coach John Smith, 42, who seems as fit as when he set, while a junior at the school in 1971, the world record for 440 yards.

The quality of Smith's voice is unstrained, even after passing through his bullhorn. It appears to operate on the principle that where a scream may cause us to resist the screamer, a whisper can seem the sound of our own inner voice. And a sprinter, when near the point of tying up, knows all about inner dialogue. To have Smith in his head with him then is a quarter-miler's greatest boon. In just the last two Olympics, Smith has coached four men—Danny Everett, Steve Lewis, Watts and Young—to six gold medals, a bronze and three world records. All ran Smith's distance, the quarter, though Young added the impediment of hurdles.

Young and Watts, training partners, are a striking pair. Young, 26, is 6'4", 170 pounds, all angles and cables. Watts, 23, is 6'3", 200, with massive shoulders, and he is as smoothly surfaced as a swimmer. Young runs high and long. Watts takes short, almost dainty steps. Watching them, Smith issues an edict. "If you're out on the track all day by yourself," he says, "you begin to waddle in your own spit." That means sprinters need to be pushed. Historically, great sprinters have arisen in clusters. Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Lee Evans kept each other honest at San Jose State. Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and Mike Marsh do the same in Houston. Quincy and Kevin are a real, old-time cluster. And they marvel at how Smith can chide without wounding. "He can get in your face and really scold you," Watts says, "and then look you in the eye and say, 'Gimme five. Let's get to work,' and you end up almost hugging. I don't know how he does that."

"You make your point and back off," says Smith. "You have to know how every athlete processes information, and you have to recover from your mistakes. You are a real coach from the day you learn to say I'm sorry without losing the athlete's respect.

"It helps, too," Smith concludes, his smile now a combination of sunshine and craftiness, "to always bring honey to the table."

After practice Smith invites you into the leathery womb of his midnight-blue Lexus, the first new car he has ever owned, and drives to the Moustache Cafe for the rack of lamb and a chocolate soufflè. He is a great, slow savorer, not least of language.

"You see I have no scars, so you know I talked a good game," Smith says as he recalls growing up in rugged South Central Los Angeles. His father, John Sr., noticing that John was beginning to run with a pack of buddies after school, took him out of the group and put him to work in his janitorial business. John was seven.

"The work ethic soaked in," John says. "From 13 to 18 I washed trucks after school and summers, along with doing summer school and track." At Fremont High he ran 48.5 for the 440 and long-jumped 24'5½". And still he worked. "I did a summer in the Bethlehem Steel mill. We had to take red-hot, smoking brick out of the furnaces. I came home so crusted with oil and grit that my mama would hose me down out in the yard, but it taught me the discipline to finish the job. When I got to UCLA and only had to run and study, it was deliverance."

When Smith arrived in Westwood in 1968, it was Bruin track coach Jim Bush who taught him the almost metaphysical secret of the longest sprint: the relaxation of every muscle except those of one's roaring engine.

Smith, too, was part of a cluster. A year ahead of him at UCLA was a 400-meter prodigy named Wayne Collett. They both raced on the U.S. team in Europe during the summer of 1970, and the following year Smith won the 440 at the national AAU meet in a world-record 44.5. In 1972 Collett won the Olympic trials 400 meters in 44.1, with Smith second. They seemed certain to go one-two, one way or the other, in the Olympic 400 in Munich.

But that was before Arab terrorists from the Black September organization broke into the Israeli quarters in the Olympic Village, killed an athlete and a coach, and took nine hostages. Smith and Collett watched from the terrace of their rooms as police and ambulances took cover near the occupied building 150 meters away. Tanks were drawn up outside the fences. Soldiers in sweat suits carried machine guns across the rooftops.

"They have no right," Collett kept saying of the attackers. "This is the one place in the world that's ours. The meaning of this place is that we can compete for the ultimate prize and not murder each other. Have you ever had your house robbed? That feeling of violation? This is a sanctuary, and they have defiled it."

That night helicopters flew hostages and terrorists to secluded Fürstenfeldbruck air base, where West German authorities had prepared an ambush. But there weren't enough snipers, and the light was bad. At the first sniper shots the terrorists began to shoot hostages. One terrorist threw a grenade into a helicopter. The ineradicable image of the grief of Munich is a burned-out helicopter, its bubble melted away by the heat of the fire that consumed the Israeli Olympians.

Sport was now unimportant. Yet Smith and Collett felt they had to run, and run well, to reaffirm the Games' meaning. Both Smith and Collett made the final. About 80 meters into that race Smith's right hamstring tore, and he went down. "Coming off the first turn, I saw he wasn't there," says Collett, "and the thought came to me, This means I win. And that was enough, probably, to take the edge off, and I didn't win."

Their U.S. teammate Vince Matthews won in 44.66 to Collett's 44.80. It took Collett a few grim seconds to absorb the loss, and then he ran to where Smith was lying, surrounded by medical attendants, on the backstretch.

"You all right?" said Collett.

"No," Smith said as he began to sob.

"I remember him in my arms," Collett says. "He was inconsolable."

"I don't feel I accomplished that much in the Olympics, in my career," he says. "Most of my athletes have done more than I did. That incompletion kept me testing myself, kept me learning."

Back at UCLA Smith watched John Wooden conduct his basketball practices. "He had the patience of Job. If you didn't get his message, he just repeated it," says Smith. "He reprimanded you so softly, you reflected on your own character."

In 1973 Smith was drafted for his speed by the Dallas Cowboys. He and fellow rookies Drew Pearson and Golden Richards were taught to be receivers by assistant coach Mike Ditka. "It was his first year not playing ball himself," Smith says of Ditka. "He said, 'Goddam it, hit the sled like this!' and he broke his wrist on it. He didn't utter a word. That afternoon he came back in a cast, and the vets were gagging, laughing. We rookies could not crack a smile. Ditka is a bear without the honey. I saw that wallowing in one's excesses can be a drawback to teaching. I learned to regulate how much of the irate competitor in me I brought to the equation. A flash of it is fine, so an athlete understands we share it. Then it's back to the honey."

That year the International Track Association (ITA) launched a professional track tour. A year later Smith joined, ran for peanuts and was stripped of his Olympic eligibility by track's international governing body, the IAAF. After the ITA folded in '76, Smith pleaded for reinstatement. When at last he got it, in 1980, an Achilles-tendon injury immediately ended his running career.

But in 1976 a director saw him training and asked him to do a commercial. Smith discovered an ability to perform and was soon studying acting. He appeared in two plays, four movies and 10 TV shows. Yet never did he mention that the John Smith auditioning for a part was the world-record holder in the 440. "Running was my love affair, my way out of evil, my community," he says. "All I ever asked, it gave me, except for one little medal, so it was intensely personal. I didn't want to use it, not as some entree into acting."

Instead Smith used his acting training to make himself a more vivid coach. Smith had never stopped working out on the UCLA track, and he often advised talented kids from the neighborhood. In 1984 new Bruin track coach Bob Larsen hired Smith to coach the sprinters. "John is the only person I know who understands running mechanics, who communicates with the complete range of people—and he's been there," Larsen says. "A lot of coaches, when one athlete gives them trouble, it ruins them with their other athletes. At first I was concerned, given the success he'd had, whether he'd be patient enough. When I saw John was spending most of his time with people who weren't our most talented, I knew we had the right guy."

Smith's first pupil at UCLA was a spidery, walk-on freshman high hurdler named Kevin Young, whom Larsen wanted to redshirt. Smith, finding that Young had never tried the 400, talked him through one at the end of a workout. Young ran 48.0. "Don't redshirt him," said Smith to Larsen. "Give him to me."

"That first year," recalls Young, "I felt like a displaced person because I was a walk-on among a lot of hotshots. It was great finding John because he was kind of a beginner coach. He wanted to get into shaping attitude and character, but because he was new, a lot of the seniors didn't respect him."

"Kevin Young kept me at UCLA," Smith says. "He was my lifeline." By his junior year Young was the NCAA 400-meter-hurdles champion. The success of the Smith-Young relationship created an atmosphere congenial to the rapid progress of two younger talents, Danny Everett and Steve Lewis. At the 1988 NCAAs, when Young won the hurdles, Everett and Lewis went one-two in the 400, and the three combined with Henry Thomas to become the first college 4 X 400-meter-relay team to crack three minutes, running 2:59.91. UCLA had another cluster.

In the Seoul Olympics, Young placed fourth in the 400 hurdles. Lewis, only a freshman, won the 400 gold in 43.87, beating world-record holder Butch Reynolds. Everett took the bronze. "I thought that had to be the climax," Smith says. "It wasn't as if I'd won a medal of my own, but the fire, not dying, had let me help others. How could it possibly get any better than that?"

But things were still building. Smith had met Watts in 1985 when Watts's father, Rufus, took his 15-year-old son to watch a UCLA workout and meet the coach. The boy worried that the coach wouldn't have time to talk to him, but he was wrong. "He was 6'1" and he'd run a sub-20 200," Smith says. "I said if he was eligible, I'd put him on the varsity that day."

Watts won the California high school 200 in 21.03 as a sophomore and again in 1987 with a 20.99, but when he picked a college, he chose USC. "I didn't feel betrayed," says Smith. "But he was the first superstar I'd recruited and lost. I called him that night and left a message on his machine, friend to friend, that I was patiently waiting. We'd work together sometime."

"That touched me," says Rufus.

Smith left other messages through the next few years, to buoy Watts's spirits during all the time he was laid up with the various injuries he incurred running the 100 and 200 for the Trojans. Basketball had so developed his quadriceps muscles that they kept overpowering his hamstrings. Then none other than Jim Bush, Smith's old mentor, came out of retirement to become the track coach at USC. The injuries from the short sprints, combined with spending a season as linebacker-fodder on the Trojan football team, inspired Watts to give the 400 a serious try.

Six months after taking up the event in earnest, he ran a leg on the U.S. 4 X 400-meter-relay team at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo. He had dislocated his jaw with the force of his vomiting after running in the semifinal, so not too much was expected of him in the final. He ran 43.4, though the team finished second. "He is going to be the best who ever lived," said Bush.

Young, who had withdrawn from Carl Lewis's Santa Monica Track Club, entered the 1992 Olympic year sponsorless and teamless. But the summer before, he had found himself doing his best work in the company of this big kid, Watts, who would come over to Westwood every now and then. After Watts won the NCAA 400 in 44.00, completing his USC eligibility, he came to train with Smith and Young full time.

So it was that three friends headed to the Olympic trials in New Orleans last June. Of course, the 400-meter race at the trials turned into a historic test of its entrants' stability. When Reynolds, suspended on a dubious drug charge by the IAAF, obtained a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing him to run, the IAAF threatened to ban anyone who took the track against him. The preliminary heats were postponed again and again while athletes waited for IAAF president Primo Nebiolo to back down. In the confusion and acrimony, Watts was steadied by Smith's repeated reminders that he had come to run, not argue. After Nebiolo relented, the event was finally held, and Watts placed third in the final behind Everett and Steve Lewis, thus qualifying for Barcelona. Young won the 400 hurdles.

In Spain, Young and Watts shared a room in the Olympic Village. And they wrote their goals on the wall. Watts wrote, "43 low." Reynolds's 400-meter record was 43.29. Young wrote, "46.89." Edwin Moses's world record was 47.02.

The 400 came first. Watts ran raggedly in the first round, but after a talk with Smith he powered to 43.71 in his semi, breaking Lee Evans's 24-year-old Olympic record of 43.86. Watts did this even though he floated in over the last 10 meters. The other semi was won by Steve Lewis, now looking as dangerous as he had when he won in Seoul.

In the 400 final Watts was away well, but down the backstretch he saw Lewis running beautifully three lanes outside. Watts thereupon moved so hard going into the second turn that he reached the stretch with a five-meter lead. He clearly tightened but kept his lead and won in 43.50, another Olympic record and the second-fastest 400 ever run. Lewis was second in 44.21. Later, Watts would burn the second leg of the 4 X 400-meter relay in 43.1, the fastest 400 leg ever, for his second gold and a share of the world record in that relay. "Quincy is Jim Bush's first Olympic 400-meter champion," Smith said after the race. "I was supposed to be, 20 years ago. It's nice to help out."

A day later, before the 400-hurdles final, Smith had Young do such a tough warmup on the practice track that several coaches who were watching decided that Young would be too tired to run a decent final. "Ten minutes before the race," Young says, "my nervous energy was gone." It had been replaced by cool resolve. Young was untroubled until he was in the blocks. "Then in my head, I heard a faint, '1988, 1988....' I thought, 'No, 1992, 1992....' I cleared it out."

Which describes, exactly, what he did in the race. "I knew I was running," he says, "but I don't remember touching the ground. Between the sixth and seventh hurdles I'd made up all the staggers. I switched perfectly from 12 to 13 steps. Usually I am tired there, but I wasn't. Usually I am concerned about where the others are, but I wasn't. I was alone. Then I hit the last hurdle."

But Young came over it with his momentum intact and broke into a smile. He drove on, raising an arm in victory with six meters to go. "I only knew I won, and then in the corner of the big screen I saw a little 46.78, and I said, 'Getouttahere!' "

Young had shattered Moses' record by .24 of a second, and the knowledge made him the most frolicsome of Barcelona's victors, at one point lying down on the track and kicking his legs in the air like a puppy.

"I thought I'd experienced the ultimate in 1988, when Steve won," says Smith, "but having Quincy win on my 42nd birthday and Kevin win and break the 47 barrier the next day, it was...well, after all the pains, and the taking of pains, finally, rapture."

Both Watts and Young wanted to pull Smith out of the stands to take their victory laps with them. On neither occasion would he go. "It wasn't my place," he says. "I know, as an athlete, that it is sacred ground out there. Only athletes."

Instead, in the cacophony of celebration, and later, as Young and Watts were rewarded with contracts and racing fees that have made them very comfortable young men, Smith controlled his breathing and meditated.

"I ask myself," he says now, "What is the lesson? The long lesson from Munich to Barcelona? I think it is that what I do, having my say in someone's head while he's running or while he's arranging his life, can't work unless I'm well received. People ask me to describe how I coach, to set down a system, and I can't. Coaching the way I do it is indefinable, except as a mutual act of trust."





Both Olympic 400 champ Watts (below) and 400-hurdles record holder Young have made great strides under Smith.



Smith (shown in a relay) set the 440 world record in '71 but tore a hamstring in Munich.



[See caption above.]



Smith stretches with his stars, linking pinkies with Watts while Young (left) looks on.