Johnson set to leave track

Thursday, September 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) _ Before a race, Michael Johnson thinks of his opponents only briefly.

``Most of the time, I am simply planning, going over some technical checklist: react, don't wait for the gun. Stay low. Get up around the corner. I imagine myself becoming leaner and more efficient. For that one moment, I am a machine, perfectly designed and programmed for the task ahead of me. Hard, cold steel.''

Forget that image after Friday night.

That's when the man of steel _ also called Superman _ will run the final race of his illustrious career.

He will anchor a United States 1,600-meter relay team at the Goodwill Games, then head off to retirement.

Johnson is entering the race with mixed emotions.

``I understand that I will miss the sport because it's been so much a part of my life,'' he said. ``I've been so fortunate. There's no way I could have any regrets. I knew when I made the decision to retire there would be nothing to do as exciting or as challenging in my life. But as an athlete, you have to understand you can't do it forever. Life is bigger than track.

``It's sad not so much because it's going to end, but that the year is going to end because I've had such a great time.''

The Goodwill Games are a fitting climax for Johnson.

``The Goodwill Games were my first international competition in Seattle in 1990,'' he said. ``I tried to prove something there and I did.

``This time, it's a farewell. This time, it's not such a big competition, it's more an emotional thing.''

Johnson plans to run his farewell race with the same intensity he has displayed over more than a decade of tough, highly successful international competition.

``I'll be very focused because I'll be wearing a USA uniform for the last time,'' he said. ``That's a big responsibility. When I wear the uniform, I want to represent my country well.''

He has represented his country perfectly.

He has won five Olympic medals _ all golds. He has won nine World Championships medals _ all golds.

In addition, he has set world records in the 200 and 400 meters. He was the first man to win the 200 and 400 at the same Olympics. He is the only man to repeat as Olympic 400 champion.

During his career, Johnson intimidated opponents with his unyielding determination.

``A lot of my opponents are afraid of me because my attitude on the track is that I'm out here to win races, period,'' he said. ``Off the track we have a completely different relationship. But from the time I get onto the track until I cross the finish line, I'm very focused on what I'm doing.''

Johnson made the decision to retire two years ago, knowing that he had accomplished most everything he wanted in the sport and would complete the rest in 2000 by becoming a repeat Olympic champion in the 400.

He decided to leave while he still was on top.

``I have developed a level of performance that my fans are used to and that's what I've always wanted to give,'' he said. ``At some point you're not going to be able to perform at that same level and I wanted to make sure that I left before then.

``I could probably continue a few more years at that same level, but at the same time, once you've achieved everything, and I've achieved everything that I set out to achieve, then there is no motivation. It's dangerous to be out there without motivation because that drive is what has kept me going.''

Johnson is most proud of his consistency and his longevity.

In the 400, he has lost only two 400s since turning pro in 1990 and about 15 200s.

Growing up, Johnson didn't think he would be famous.

Time has changed that, and Johnson became one of track and field's best-known athletes, alongside greats like Jesse Owens _ his idol _ and Carl Lewis.

``I never wanted to be a celebrity,'' he said Thursday. ``I wasn't comfortable with that. When you're growing up as the youngest of five, and your parents tell you you're not special, you don't feel that way. So I always felt I wasn't special.''

Family feelings notwithstanding, Johnson has been special to the sport, very special.

Many of his accomplishments have been unparalleled.

His coach since college, Clyde Hart, knows how special Johnson has been.

``He's been as perfect as a coach could want,'' Hart said. ``We've shared the same objectives _ he wanted to be the best and I've wanted him to be the best. We wanted to be the best each year, even if it was only one percent better. We tried to do a little more ... each year.

``It's been nothing but a pure pleasure. We've had no conflicts. Now if we can just get through another day, I think we'll be OK.''

Johnson will run an exhibition relay at Yokohama, Japan, Sept. 15, two days after his 34th birthday, before fading into retirement.

Then, he plans to work with youngsters and help promote the sport. He also will continue his work as a television commentator for track and field.

``I've done it (compete in track and field) for a long time and it's been fun,'' he said. ``But at some point, you have to move on.''

Now's the time.