Sunday, April 23, 2006

Oh, Zone!

Gatlin-anchored squad sets Relays record


The 26,211 sun-baked fans stood and waited ... and waited ... and waited for what seemed an eternity as Justin Gatlin, Maurice Greene and other Olympic-caliber sprinters positioned on the track for Saturday's "Main Event" 400-meter invitational relay at Memorial Stadium.

"They were playing 'Duck, Duck, Goose' with the lanes," said Gatlin, the Olympic 100-meter champion and leader of the Sprint Capitol team matched against the Greene-led HSI squad in the feature event of the Kansas Relays.

"They couldn't find out who was in lane three, seven and eight, so everybody switched around. I think it took three times to get it right. The audience was patient. We were patient. I think we put on a good show," Gatlin said.

Indeed, after a 10-minute delay in which meet director Tim Weaver radioed on-track judges to ensure anchor runners Greene and Gatlin were nestled next to each other in lanes five and six, the race was on.

Gatlin's Sprint Capitol squad of Rodney Martin, Dwight Thomas, Shawn Crawford and Gatlin won in a sizzling 38.16 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year and the best in Relays history.

The HSI team of Allen Johnson, Leonard Scott, Kaaron Conwright and anchor Greene placed second in 39.02.

"The number-one time in the world ... you can't ask for better than that," said "Cheetah Man" Crawford, who handed the baton to Gatlin with a 12-foot head start on Greene, who stormed past two anchors down the stretch to assure runner-up status for the team that held the old Relays record of 38.45 set in 2000.

"It didn't bother us at all," Greene said of the pre-race delay. "We are used to that stuff. It happens. There was a little confusion having to switch lanes at the last minute. We're professionals. That's not a problem.

"It's the first time we've run this year. We've not worked on handoffs. You make costly mistakes when you never work on handoffs."

The Sprint Capitol team, which had practiced handoffs since arriving Tuesday in Lawrence, delivered the baton to Gatlin in fine shape.

Gatlin ran alone down the stretch in 9.1 seconds and was treated as a hero after crossing the finish line. He walked in front of the west stadium bleachers, slapping hands with fans in the front row, even posing for pictures.

"I think if I would have gotten any closer to the fans they would have de-robed me," Gatlin quipped. "They asked for my spikes, everything I had on."

He said, "not at all," when asked if he was bothered by the pre-event mixup. Weaver took responsibility for the trouble, which according to some of the participants was caused by the competitors on teams in lane three (Lincoln University), seven (Barton County CC) and eight (World All-Stars) not lining up correctly.

"You do a lot of stuff on the circuit when you are out there. There's activity in the lanes. You prepare yourself for those things," Gatlin said.

The race lived up to a week's worth of hype. Sprint Capitol coach Trevor Graham told the Journal-World and 6News on Tuesday his squad was so dominant it would be "running against the clock," not the competition.

"We backed up our words ... his words. That's the most important thing," Gatlin said.

Graham sheepishly admitted he was pleased his runners backed up his boasts.

"It was just a little promotion, me trying to get crowds out. I think it worked," Graham said, aware it was the second-largest crowd in Relays history, passing last year's mark of 24,619 fans. "We had a great crowd. The fans were into it. Hopefully next year we can put on a show the same way for them."

In fact, Gatlin grabbed the microphone and told the fans Sprint Capitol would go for the world record next spring at KU if it didn't set the mark this outdoor season.

"It was a great atmosphere, a great start to the season," Gatlin said. "I was here all day yesterday watching the high school and college events, the steeplechase. I wasn't bum-rushed by my fans. My fans will be my fans. They want a piece of me. I was able to give them a piece."

Greene said he would try to regain the relay record lost Saturday, but not because there was animosity to trash-talking Sprint Capitol.

"It's fun. Relays are fun," Greene said. "If this was the Olympic Games, I'd be upset. They are our countrymen. We're all out here trying to better ourselves. We talk a lot of stuff, but it's in good fun. It gets us all ready for the race. It creates excitement, gets the blood boiling."

As far as the lost record ... it doesn't steam Greene.

"It's disappointing, (but) records are made to be broken," he said. "As long as I'm in the sport, I can get it again."

Elated at the excitement surrounding the final event of GOLDZONE II, meet director Weaver nonetheless was dismayed at the delay before the race.

"I'm glad I wasn't miked, let's just say that," he quipped about what he said while trying to straighten out lane assignments.

"I'll take responsibility. It's my fault what happens. Things were set ... the picture I obviously put all the effort into was to have Maurice and Justin side by side. I looked down, and those guys were a lane apart from each other. Somewhere along the line somebody didn't follow the script. It was a great race, and the competitors couldn't have been more gracious again about how they were treated here. It was just a great race and a great day today."


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