Holding Fast

Times Staff Writer

At 10 in the morning, on a blood-red track that bakes in the summer months under the blazing sun and shivers in the damp cold of the Carolina winters, the sound of the footsteps of the world's fastest man carries out to the stands of tall pines beyond the chain-link fence, then drifts away into the sky.

Tim Montgomery is alone.

Rain, snow, sun, heat, breezy, buggy, summer, winter, spring or fall -- Montgomery shows up at the track at 10. By himself. For more than six months now, pretty much since he ran faster than anyone has ever run 100 meters, he has had no coach. He has had only Marion -- Marion Jones, his partner, the world's most famous female sprinter, mother-to-be of his child. When she can, she shows up to film his workouts.

In track and field circles, what Montgomery is doing is more or less heresy. A sprinter works with a coach. That is that. But Montgomery has had no coach. It doesn't matter, he said as he readies for the U.S. outdoor championships that start today in Palo Alto. It's only one more obstacle. What is one more challenge in a life with a path mined with obstacles, littered with doubters?

"I am a true believer," he said, humble before his God, manifestly sure of himself at the starting line.

"I've been brought up in church and I believe that you've got to have faith," he said. "You've got to believe in something so bad and put God first. And all these obstacles ... I never [believed] I couldn't break the world record."

Last September in Paris, Montgomery ran the 100 in 9.78 seconds. Maurice Greene had run 9.79 in 1999. Greene won the 100 meters in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Montgomery hadn't even qualified for the Olympic 100. So how is it that Montgomery, of all the sprinters in the world, would be the one to lower the mark to 9.78?

God-given talent. And faith. And Marion Jones.

Montgomery is blessed with talent -- unbelievable talent, for he is 5 feet 9, perhaps 160 pounds, racing against chiseled blocks who often tower over him and outweigh him by 40 pounds or more.

Growing up in Gaffney, S.C., all he ever wanted to be was a football player.

But when he got to high school, it was clear, even to him, that he was too small to play ball. So to earn a black-and-gold Gaffney Indians letter jacket, to be somebody, his only real option was track. If he ran and won four races, he said, he could get that jacket.

His first race, he showed up at the start line and all the other runners settled into something called blocks. He had no idea what they were.

"So I went from a standing start. The [official] looked at me, he said, 'Uh, when you do that type of start, you have to stand completely still.' So I had to let the rest of the people go and then I went," he said. "I ended up winning the race."

At the regional meet, he squared off against a star athlete named Stephen Davis. Davis wore the blue and gold of the rival Spartanburg Vikings. This was the race Montgomery needed for the jacket.

"Everybody on the football field was terrified of Stephen Davis: 'Stephen Davis was the best. Stephen Davis was the best.' So the regionals, I ended up beating Stephen Davis. And that's when I fell in love with track and field. I fell in love with the odds being against me and me overcoming the odds."

Davis, now with the Carolina Panthers after starring for several seasons with the Washington Redskins, got his revenge later that spring at the state meet. Montgomery can still remember the times. So can Davis: Davis, 10.28. Montgomery, 10.34. "The only race I lost in high school," Montgomery said.

Said Davis: "You couldn't believe how small he was and how fast."

Montgomery had never wanted to leave Gaffney. When the time came to take the SAT, he said, he signed his name and left -- didn't even bother to take the test. What for? But a few weeks after his last race in high school, he and a friend found themselves in a confrontation. The friend was shot dead and, as Montgomery tells the story, "I went to court, and the judge told me, 'This right here should be a lesson to you. You should get out of this town.' "

The only place that would take Montgomery, on a flier, was Blinn Junior College in Brenham, Texas, about 90 miles east of Austin. Montgomery hitched a ride west. He carried no luggage. When he got to his dorm room, there were no sheets. The coach took one look at Montgomery, all of 128 pounds, and told him he'd be lucky to make the traveling squad.

His freshman year, Montgomery said, he didn't lose a race. In 1994, he set what he thought was a world junior record in the 100 of 9.96. Three weeks later, he got a call: The course was 3.7 centimeters short. No record.

Montgomery moved to Norfolk State, in Virginia. In 1996, he made the U.S. Olympic team, but only in the 400-meter relay pool. And in the relays, "I ran two rounds and they pulled me off in the finals." The U.S. team finished second.

The next year, at the world championships in Athens, Montgomery won bronze in the 100. And then in 1998, "I just let everything slip from me. I let the goals slip from me. I let what was going wrong with me -- you know, I got tossed back into partying and playing around and not living the athletic lifestyle."

And then, in 1999, one of Montgomery's best friends was shot dead at a gas station in Virginia. Montgomery had let him borrow a car, a white Mercedes. "I blamed myself," Montgomery said. " ... If I had never given him the car, no one would have been attracted to that kind of car."

Watching TV one day thereafter, he saw Marion Jones running. And he thought to himself, "If she can do that, I've got to learn how."

Montgomery packed up and moved to Raleigh, where Jones was training with a coach named Trevor Graham.

For the first time, he learned how to lift weights. He learned how to eat. He learned the focus it takes to become a champion. His role model? Jones.

In Sydney, she won five medals, three gold. Montgomery made the team, but, again, only in the relay pool. He ran one round; this time the U.S. team won gold, so Montgomery owns a gold medal, but, he said, "To me, I've never been to an Olympic Games. When people ask me, I've been but I don't consider myself as participating. So that's why 2004 is so important to me."

In 2001, Montgomery won the 100 at the U.S. outdoor championships at Eugene, Ore. That July, in Oslo, he ran 9.84, then the third-fastest time in history.

Last year, he and Jones became a pair. Last Sept. 14, he ran 9.78.

The relationship with Graham, meantime, had run its course. Days after the 9.78, on Sept. 26, according to court papers, Graham called Montgomery and told him not to come back to camp. Both men agree Graham made the call. Montgomery said that ended things; Graham said he called Montgomery again, a few days later, and said they should work things out.

The dispute is now in litigation, in Wake County Superior Court in Raleigh. Montgomery, who filed the suit, contends in the court papers that Graham breached their contract and owes him $12,500 -- the final chunk of their $50,000-a-year deal. The lawsuit alleges that Montgomery had paid the last quarterly installment two days before getting the phone call.

Graham has counter-sued, saying Montgomery owes him $30,000 -- $15,000 unpaid from 2001, $15,000 more as part of a 2002 bonus for breaking the 100-meter mark.

"It's business," Graham said. "I've still got a lot of love for Tim."

Meantime, Montgomery had made contact in 2000 with Charlie Francis, the coach who admitted that he had supplied steroids to Ben Johnson before the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Johnson was stripped of the gold medal in the 100 at those Games after testing positive for a banned substance, and Francis was prohibited from working with Canadian national team athletes. Francis has since been something of a track and field pariah -- except that he has been sought out over the years, quietly, for his considerable coaching expertise.

Montgomery said he had spoken to Francis throughout 2001 but not in 2002, not until after the 9.78 in Paris, when he and Jones made contact -- quietly, they thought.

They were wrong. A public relations disaster ensued.

Months later, Montgomery and Jones understand now the furor -- he the world's fastest man, she the Olympic star, and they can't find anyone else in the world for advice? Neither, however, has regrets.

"Tim and I do not regret the fact that we went to Canada and studied under the tutelage of Charlie Francis for a couple months," Jones said. "What I learned in four or five months is more than I learned in six or seven years in Raleigh."

Said Montgomery: "The reason why I know I didn't have a problem talking to Charlie Francis or being associated with Charlie Francis -- I know I'm not doing nothing wrong. It's like, if I'm a bank robber, if I'm on 'America's Most Wanted,' I don't walk into a police station."

The association with Francis -- coming on the heels of the world record -- has obviously ratcheted up drug-testers' suspicion. Montgomery said he has been tested at least eight times in recent weeks. Last Friday, after spending two hours with a visitor, the testers came calling to the house he and Jones share near Raleigh. He was out but said he arranged to meet them at a McDonald's off Interstate 540 and produced the latest sample.

The next morning, he was back at the track. At 10. By himself. Jones had a doctor's appointment.

This week in Palo Alto, Montgomery is solo. Jones will be in North Carolina; the baby is due in July.

There apparently will be no showdown in Palo Alto with Greene. Greene will run only in the 200; as the reigning world champion in the 100, he has a free pass to that event at this year's world championships in August in Paris. Greene also has the fastest 100 meters by an American this year, 9.94 on June 1 in Carson. Montgomery's best for the year is 10.04, on May 3 in Mexico City.

World record and all, Montgomery must finish in the top three in the 100 this week simply to earn a trip to Paris.

One more challenge. Who believes in Tim Montgomery?

Jones does. "The athletes that succeed live it every day," she said. "We're at the dinner table and we're talking about his first four steps. Or we're talking about his back [starting] block."

Montgomery does. This meet, he said, may well be "one of the most emotional races of my entire life."

"I'm supposed to be struggling. I don't have a coach. I'm supposed to have all this pressure on me. I'm supposed to not be ready for this year. I was written off."

He also said, however, "I just want to show everybody my talent -- that this is a kid who is going to run under 10 seconds and don't even have a coach."

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