Johnson ends U.S. career with a flourish

Posted: Monday, April 30, 2001

PHILADELPHIA -- Michael Johnson ended his gold-plated career in the United States with a fitting finish.

The 33-year-old Johnson, who is retiring from track at the end of the season, showed in his final race the same competitive drive that has helped him to five Olympic gold medals, nine world championships and world records in the 200 and 400 meters.

Taking the baton about even with Jamaica's Michael Blackwood on the anchor leg of the Olympic Development 1,600-meter relay at the Penn Relays on Saturday, Johnson fell behind briefly, eliciting a roar from the raucous Jamaican fans in the meet-record crowd of 49,922 at Franklin Field.

Then, after running alongside Blackwood or off his right shoulder, Johnson went into overdrive with just over 150 meters remaining. He easily swept past Blackwood, wheeled around the final turn and pounded down the stretch to a 12-meter victory in 2 minutes, 58.60 seconds.

''I let him set the pace for a while,'' Johnson said. ''The anchor leg is usually boring because when I get the stick we're about five, six or seven meters ahead.''

Johnson's split of 44.2 -- he eased up just before the finish line -- matched that of Olympic 400-meter hurdles champion Angelo Taylor, who ran the second leg. Leonard Byrd ran 45.4 on leadoff and Olympian Jerome Young ran 44.8 on the third leg.

Johnson, who is not running any individual races during his farewell tour, savored the moment.

He jogged counterclockwise around the track in a victory lap, waving to the crowd and high-fiving spectators, a huge smile crossing his face. He said he wanted to enjoy this year, and not have to worry about the pressure of running individual races, especially in high-calibre international competition. He wanted to interact more with the fans, and now he was getting that chance.

As Johnson loped around the track, public address announcer Jack O'Reilly said, ''Thanks for the memories,'' and the crowd, which already was giving him a standing ovation, applauded with extra enthusiasm.

Johnson glowed.

Afterward, he was praised by his fellow athletes.

''I wouldn't have missed that race for the world,'' said Marion Jones, winner of five Olympic medals last year, who anchored the U.S. women's team to victory in the 1,600 relay. ''I was teasing him after my race ... asking him if he was going to get emotional. He said no.

''Now, I can tell my grandchildren that I saw one of the best athletes in the world compete.''

Latasha Colander-Richardson, a member of Saturday's winning women's team who ran with Jones on the winning team at the Sydney Games, also relished watching Johnson run.

''He's a 400-meter runner with the essence and beauty of running the quarter-mile,'' she said. ''He has the beauty to turn it on and overcome. He has a beautiful talent ... just incredible.''

Johnson's relay teammates echoed the praise.

''He's a great athlete,'' Byrd said. ''The opportunity to run a relay with Mike -- my first one -- has always been a dream of mine. It's sad to see him go.''

Taylor said, ''I grew up watching Mike run. I've learned a lot from him. It's always an honor to run with him.''

Young, who ran with Johnson on the U.S. team that set the world 1,600-meter relay record in 1998, also said he had learned a lot from him, adding, ''He's done a lot for the sport.''

''I've also paid a lot of dues to him,'' Young said. ''Hopefully, I can follow in his footsteps. They're real big footsteps.''

Listening to his teammates talk about him, Johnson got a little emotional. He was soaking in the accolades, as all the athletes seemed to be saying, ''Thanks for the memories.''

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