After a two-hour track workout in early March, Tyree Washington,
one of America's fastest 400-meter runners, returned to his home
in northern San Diego and reached for his favorite video. "You
know the scene where kids are chasing Forrest Gump?" Washington
asks. "He breaks out of his leg braces and runs free. I love that
scene." Washington has dozens of tapes in his video
collection--including one of him winning the world indoor 400
title in 2003--but Gump is his tape of choice. He's seen it
nearly 75 times. For a man who smiles profusely, counts baking
oatmeal cookies from scratch as a favorite pastime and has a good
shot at winning the gold medal in the 400 in Athens this summer,
there are few hints of a tortured past.
Washington, 27, was raised by a single mother in the projects of
Riverside, Calif. His father was in and out of jail for various
offenses, including robbery and assault. Tyree says growing up he
saw his dad only once, when Tyree was five and his father gave
him $5. "I told my friends he was away," Washington says. "I
lived a lie. He wasn't there to discipline me, so guys I looked
up to were gangbangers and drug dealers." At 12, Washington
joined a Crips gang. The older members taught him to deal drugs
and shoot a gun, though he was never arrested and never fired at
anyone. "But I wanted to fire," he says. "I had so much anger."
When Washington was 14, his close friend Tony Salazar, a
promising boxer known as Champ, was fatally stabbed in a gang
battle. "After that I was desperate for something good in my
life," Washington says. "I turned to sports to keep me alive."
Washington shed the gang life for track spikes and football pads
at Riverside's La Sierra High, and his life turned around. At La
Sierra he won a state title in the long jump and earned a
football scholarship to Oregon. Low SAT scores kept him from
going to Eugene, however, so he ended up at San Bernardino
(Calif.) Valley College, where he met Chara Christian, an
interior design student and fellow 400-meter runner. "All the
guys were demanding my number like I had to give it to them,"
Chara says. "Ty sent his friend to ask because he was too shy. He
was a gentleman." Tyree and Chara were married in 1998. (He has
shared custody of a son, Malik, 7, from a previous relationship.)
His star had already begun to rise. He was on the U.S. 4x400
relay teams that won a world title in 1997 and set a world record
in '98. But circumstances intervened. In '99 Washington learned
that his niece, 18-month-old Anjulette Levy, had died of
suffocation at the hands, Riverside police said, of his sister
Rosalyn Washington and her husband, Steven Levy. According to the
police, Anjulette had been starved, beaten and bound with duct
tape. "The last time I held her, she wouldn't let go," Tyree
says. "It was like she wanted me to take her away. I should have
known what was going on. I should have done more."
Washington was fraught with guilt for months, and running became
an afterthought. He ran only four races in 2000 and failed to
make the Sydney Olympic team. Within two years he had turned his
sights to football. He had tryouts as a defensive back and wide
receiver with six NFL teams and was a late cut in '02 by the San
Diego Chargers. That year he also testified against Rosalyn, who
along with Levy was convicted of first-degree murder; both are
serving 25 years to life. From that experience Washington has
become dedicated to helping troubled kids; after the trial he
spent seven months working for the Riverside Probation
Department, counseling children and their guardians.
Last year, after an 18-month layoff, Washington roared back onto
the track. His only defeat in the 400 was a runner-up finish at
the world outdoor championships. He skipped this winter's indoor
season to train but plans to run a full outdoor slate.
"The other scene I like in Forrest Gump," Washington says, "is
the one about the box of chocolates. You never know what kind of
life you might get. I've got a great wife, great son, great
career. It's a sweeter life than I ever thought I'd have."
COLOR PHOTO: THOMAS KIENZLE/AP OUT OF THE BLOCKS Washington came back strong in '03, winning the U.S. indoor and utdoor titles after an 18-month layoff.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (INSET) [See caption above]
Top 400 Men
These are the top five 400-meter runners in the world, according
to the most recent IAAF rankings
1. Jerome Young, U.S.
Gold medalist at last year's worlds in Paris
2. Tyree Washington, U.S.
Had best time in world in '03 (44.33)
3. Alleyne Francique, Grenada
This year's world indoor champ
3. (tie) Michael Blackwood, Jamaica
Will help nation bid for Olympic relay gold
5. Marc Raquil, France
Bronze medalist at 2003 worlds