International Athletics

Spearmon set for Beijing return

2015-07-07 15:33
Wallace Spearmon (Gallo Images)

Watch as South Africa's Wayde Van Niekerk storms to victory over a strong field in the Paris leg of the Diamond League.

Cape Town - For about 30 fabulous minutes, American sprinter Wallace Spearmon Jr. earned a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And then it was taken away.

Well into his celebration lap that night - clowning around with good friend and gold medalist Usain Bolt - news finally caught up to Spearmon that he'd been disqualified from the 200 meters for stepping outside his lane.

He wept in a back room for a good half-hour over a medal that was practically around his neck.

Next month at the world championships, Spearmon races for the first time in Beijing since that exhilarating-turned-crushing Olympic day.

This time around, his plan is straightforward: Actually take home a medal. Oh, and watch his step, of course.

"I am going to redeem myself," Spearmon said in a phone interview from Fayetteville, Arkansas. "Because that day (in 2008) felt like Christmas and I got all my gifts and I was so excited, only to have my parents tell me we really don't have any money and have to give it all back.

"I was angry at track. I was angry at the rules. Angry at my coaches. Angry at myself. It scarred me."

To even earn a spot to worlds was a pretty significant step for him.

Nine months ago, the 30-year-old had surgery to reattach three muscles to his pelvic bone. It was an injury that had him seriously considering stepping away from sprinting.

He didn't start running again until December. Even then, it was frustrating with his training partners routinely trouncing him as if they were Bolt and he was just another sprinter occupying a lane.

"No offense to them, but I know they're not on Bolt's level," said Spearmon, an NCAA champion at Arkansas where he's now finishing up his business degree as he trains. "I was like, 'What's going on here?'"

In one of his first races back this season, he was anticipating a finish in the 20.3-second range, just to show him he was on the right track to recovery. Instead, the clock read 20.9.

"Very discouraging," he said.

Outwardly, Spearmon tried to remain positive heading into U.S. championships late last month, telling everyone he had a good shot at making the world team in the 200, his signature event.

Privately, he struggled to fully believe it. He called Bolt for a pep talk, with the defending world champion in the 100 and 200 joking around with Spearmon to lighten his mood.

"Bolt's like, 'We'll be all right,'" Spearmon recounted. "Easy for him to say - he had a bye."

The doubt only increased during the opening round of the 200 at nationals, when Justin Gatlin and the rest of the field blazed down the track.

"I just said, 'Please don't let me embarrass myself. I don't know if I can run this fast,'" said Spearmon, a fourth-place finisher at the 2012 London Games. "It was stressful."

In the final, Gatlin did his thing — running a meet-record 19.57 seconds. Isiah Young, Gatlin's training partner, wound up second. And with a closing burst, Spearmon secured the third and final spot in the event.

"I was in shock. I was numb," said Spearmon, who will tune up for worlds by competing at the Pan American Games in Toronto later this month. "It was just a positive moment."

Spearmon's hoping for another on August 27 - the day of the 200 final at worlds.

"It's a big deal (to race again in Beijing)," said Spearmon, who was scheduled to compete at the Bird's Nest a few years ago, only to strain his hamstring and miss the event. "Because in the record books, it's almost like I didn't run at the Beijing Olympics."

Seven years ago in China, Spearmon finished behind Bolt and Churandy Martina of the Netherlands. They made their way around the track together, with Bolt leading the parade.

On the homestretch of that celebration lap, Spearmon was summoned over to the stands and informed about his disqualification for his foot landing on the lane line. Martina was eventually eliminated, too, for a similar violation. The official results from that day now read like this: Gold, Bolt. Silver, American Shawn Crawford. Bronze, American Walter Dix.

It was a painful rules lesson for Spearmon. Going into the race, he thought he had to touch the line on three consecutive steps to be disqualified.

"When we go to team meetings, I'm always asked, 'How many times can you step on the line before you're DQed?'" Spearmon said. "I say, 'One.' The younger kids will go, 'No, that's not right.'

"I'm like, 'All right, you can go out the way I did then.'"

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