American sprinter looks back at the Tsikliteria International in Athens in June 1999 when he stormed to a 9.79 world record for 100m
I was a reigning world champion but I was really just coming into my own. I’d gone to the World Championships in Athens in 1997 and won but I was still learning a lot about my race pattern and I really thought I could work on perfecting everything. That’s all I was really thinking of: perfecting the race. It wasn’t about how to get a whole lot faster.
When I was going to Athens for the meet, I wasn’t even supposed to run the 100m. I was going to go there and run a 200m but then, when I got there and I saw who was in the 100m, I was like: “Man, something is about to happen. I don’t know what it is, but I want to be a part of it.”
So I called my manager Emanuel Hudson and told him: “I don’t care what you have to do, but you have to get me in this 100m race.”
The night before he called me and said: “I got you in, but you’re only going to run one race [no preliminary heat] while everybody else is going to run two.” I didn’t care.
When we got to the track, everybody was warming up. I was sitting down on the track watching the prelim heats, knowing only seven people were going to make it through since they were leaving the lane open in the final for me.
So that let me prepare. I just warmed up nice and easy, taking my time, winding down and just trying to perfect the race. When I ran in Athens to take gold at the World Championships, it was a little rocky as a race – it wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. I told myself: “Let’s make this a lot smoother this time. Because I know hands down what I’m doing is better than I did in the years before.”
The more confident you are, the better. Even when I’m coaching someone now, especially when I’m starting to work with them, and they’re trying to hurry and rush things and asking why they’re not getting it, I tell them the more confidence you get in yourself, the more confidence you’ll have in your race pattern – and the more patience that you can have so you won’t rush things so much.
When you start realising that, and stop caring about what or who’s around you, or anything else, that’s when everything starts flourishing for you. That’s what it was with me. I could be more patient. I wasn’t rushing my movements. I didn’t feel like I had to hurry up to get there. I let the process unfold by itself to run smoothly and then everything happened on its own. That’s because of the confidence you have within yourself.
Ato Boldon was my training partner. The year before, all we talked about was breaking the world record and we didn’t even get close to it. So then I just said: “You know what? I’m not even going to talk about it anymore.” I was just going to run the best race possible and not think about times. Once I started that, that’s when the times really started becoming faster.
Ato was probably my toughest competitor. We worked together almost every day so I knew I had to be a little bit more patient than him. He would think about everything, even during the race, whereas I would feel my way through it. I wasn’t worried about anything else.
My way worked for me, his way worked for him and even though he was leading for most of that race, I was a lot more patient. That made me a lot stronger at the end of the races, where I was able to overcome him, and it got me to the world record that night.
I didn’t even really see the clock when I finished until Ato came up to me and screamed: “Look, look, look!” My reaction was that finally I’d done something that I’d been saying I wanted to do for so long. I had finally done it.
And then, quickly, I thought: “I want to go faster. I want to do more.” That was just my way of thinking and how I did things. An hour later, I ran the 200m and Ato beat me. I’d exerted a lot of energy, but we trained for that, to run two races at the top of our speed.
READ MORE: Ato Boldon – ask the athlete
I think that night played into my getting the Olympic gold a year later in Sydney. I wasn’t worried about anyone else or anything else but obviously my confidence was a lot higher, knowing what I was capable of.
I’ve always maintained that I never ran the perfect race and that’s what I was always wanting to do. If I had been able to finish the perfect race, who knows what that time would have been?
» As told to Mark Woods
» This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of AW magazine, which you can read here