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Sprinter Williams' word as good as gold

Just as he promised, Bernard Williams is bringing home a gold medal to Baltimore.

It's the souvenir of a dramatic, come-from-behind triumph for the U.S. men's 400-meter relay team yesterday at the Stade de France, a happy conclusion to a less-than-joyous American team performance at track and field's world championships.

It wasn't the narrow margin of victory that counted most - long-striding anchor man J.J. Johnson running down Great Britain's Dwain Chambers in the drama-packed final steps of a 38.06 performance, with the Britons just two-hundredths of a second behind - but what it represented.

The U.S. 400 team - 200 world champion John Capel running leadoff, Baltimore's Williams handling the second leg, 200 silver medalist Darvis Patton running third and 200 sixth-placer Johnson anchoring - was a patchwork unit, but still indicative of the nation's vast pool of sprinting talent and competitive spirit.

"We didn't run 37 [seconds] low, the way we wanted to, but with only two days of practice together, I think we ran exceptionally well," said Williams, the former Carver High, Barton Community College (Kan.) and University of Florida star.

"The sticks [baton exchanges] were a little rough, a little raggedy - actually a lot more raggedy than we did in the beginning," Williams said, referring to the preliminary round and semifinal Saturday. "But thank God for the foot speed we had on each leg, and J.J. running a tremendous anchor leg."

Added Williams, "I was never worried about J.J.," who got the baton in third place, back of both Britain and Brazil. "No, because J.J. has been known to walk down the likes of Maurice Greene, as well as Tim Montgomery.

"So we had a lot of faith in him. He's also 6-4 and a guy who covers a lot of ground. We knew we were in a good position to win."

With 100 meters left and more than 55,000 fans roaring, Johnson trailed both Chambers, by a meter, and Brazil's Claudio Roberto Souza. It was time to bring it home, or get ready to drag out the excuses.

Johnson lived up to his teammates' confidence.

Inexorably, he reeled in the Brazilian and then the Briton and, dipping forward in classic finish-line technique, clinched it.

"I wanted to stay patient," said Johnson, who kept the drama alive to the last possible moment.

It was the seventh U.S. men's 400 relay triumph at the worlds, but just the second time the event has been won in more than 38 seconds, trailing only Canada's 38.31 in 1995.

For reasons open to guesswork - the quality of the track, the quality of the air, the revised rules of starting procedures - sprint times never lived up to expectations.

A week ago, the U.S. lineup seemed destined to be Williams, the national 100 champion; Jon Drummond, a two-time Olympic relay gold medalist; and Greene and Montgomery, the two fastest 100 runners in history.

But that plan came apart when Greene pulled a hamstring in the 100 semifinals, Montgomery went home after running fifth in the 100 final, and Drummond was ousted after his celebrated protest of his false-start disqualification in the 100 quarterfinals.

So Capel, Patton and Johnson were called in to pinch hit.

"We turned the worst of times into the best of times," a delighted Capel said.

"We didn't care what anyone was saying. We knew even before last night [a 37.99 semifinal win] that we could do it. Even though we were stuck together with masking tape and glue, we came back and did it."

"We were under a lot of pressure because a lot people were thinking we couldn't win without Maurice and Tim," Williams said. "But we showed people how deep we are with a good number of sprinters."

Williams has been the common thread in the past three major U.S. 400 relay victories - at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the 2001 worlds in Edmonton, Alberta, and this meet.

"It's a blessing, because you never know," he said. "You look at it and the faces change every year. I just thank God that I'm consistent, being on each of these teams.

"I thought we won when I crossed the line. We were so close," Chambers said. But when he peered up at the giant tele-scoreboard, he knew it hadn't happened that way.

With victories by the men's 1,600 relay team of Calvin Harrison, Tyree Washington, Derrick Brew and Jerome Young (2:58.86) in a tight battle with France, and the women's 1,600 squad of Me'Lisa Barber, Demetria Washington, Jearl Miles Clark and Sanya Richards (3:23.63), fighting off a determined Russian team, the U.S. team raised its gold medal total to 10 in the 46-event, nine-day meet.

The 10 topped the nine won by the Americans in Edmonton, but serious U.S. shortcomings were evident.

American entries were no factor in races beyond 400 meters and delivered just one field-event title, the men's long jump crown taken by Dwight Phillips.

But there were come-through performances by veteran Allen Johnson, now a four-time world champion in the 110 hurdles, and decathlete Tom Pappas.

Other final-day highlights included the men's 5,000 victory of Kenya's 18-year-old Elliud Kipchoge (in a meet-record 12:52.79) by a stride over Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, the world 1,500 champion; and the upset women's 1,500 triumph of Russia's Tatyana Tomashova (in a meet-record 3:58.52) over heavy favorite Sureyya Ayhan of Turkey.

Still, the 2003 world championships - a rousing success at the gate, attracting near-capacity crowds nine straight days, to go along with a global TV audience - is an event likely to be remembered for the wrong reasons.

U.S. double gold medalist Jerome Young (400 meters and 1,600 relay) had to overcome a drug cloud - allegations of past steroid charges, later dismissed.

But the same cloud still hovers over U.S. women's double sprint (100 and 200) champion Kelli White.

It may take many months for the White case to be resolved, with the build-up to the Athens Olympics well under way.
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