He may be the most finely tuned athlete on the planet, maniacally disciplined and undistractible from his goals. So when Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson rises at dawn to attend to his crucial morning ritual, he is utterly focused on the task at hand—making goo-goo eyes at son Sebastian. “I like to spend time with him in the mornings,” says Johnson, 32, of his 3-month-old child, “just being with him, watching him grow and learn new things. Right now he’s starting to make noises, and he’s pretty loud. He’s a handful.”
Those competing against Johnson this fall are probably saying the same thing. A standout at the ’96 Olympics, he made history by winning gold medals in both the 200-and 400-meter races, an unprecedented showing in two brutally challenging events. But it was his electrifying, straight-backed running style, reminiscent of his idol Jesse Owens, and his flashy gold running shoes—a pair of which have been enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution—that turned Johnson into a sort of Tiger Woods of track and field. “What Michael did was extend the sport into the mainstream,” says Jill Geer, a U.S.A. Track and Field executive. “He became its first multimedia superstar.” Not one to rest on his many world records, magazine covers and endorsement deals (totaling about $5 million a year), Johnson is set on becoming the oldest sprinter to win Olympic gold. “My career is coming to an end, and there’s nothing I haven’t done,” he says. “But I don’t think there’s anyone out there who can beat me when I’m running my best.”
Johnson’s dash to hero status hasn’t been without a stumble or two. He has suffered untimely injuries, tearing a quadriceps muscle in a much-hyped 1997 150-meter showdown with Donovan Bailey and cramping up in the 200-meter Olympic trial against rival Maurice Greene in July (as a result he’ll miss the 200 in Sydney). Johnson’s intensity has also earned him criticism as standoffish. “Some athletes will actually stop their warm-up to sign autographs,” he says. “I won’t do it. I consider [warming up] work.” Still, the 6’1″, 180-lb. Johnson has never felt lighter on his feet, thanks to his two-year marriage to former entertainment reporter Kerry D’Oyen, 37, and, of course, to his handful of a son. “I’ve rarely seen Michael so comfortable and confident and happy,” says his friend and agent Brad Hunt. “This is such a great time in his life.”
The youngest of five brothers and sisters raised in Dallas by Paul Johnson, now a retired truck driver, and Ruby, an elementary school teacher, “I was always the one getting picked on,” remembers Johnson, “so I learned fast how to get away from everyone.” He started running competitively at age 10 but in high school still planned to become an architect. It was at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, that Johnson hooked up with current coach Clyde Hart and, as a sophomore, beat Calvin Smith, then the world champion, in the 200; two years later, he became the first athlete to be ranked No. 1 in the 200 and 400 meters. A case of food poisoning wrecked his chances of competing at the ’92 Olympics, but he more than redeemed himself four years later in Atlanta, where his breathtaking time of 19.32 seconds in the 200 landed him on the covers of Time and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in the same week.
Machine-like in his work habits—he trains up to six hours six days a week—Johnson lets his soft side show in the two-story European-style Dallas home he shares with Kerry, whom he met on a blind date in 1995. “We’re having a blast together,” she says. “That’s a warm, loving person I’m married to—and funny.” Hardly an extravagant spender, he admits to dropping a bundle on antique furniture and watches, his two collecting passions, as well as on his showiest purchase—a silver Ferrari 360 Modena. Generally, though, Johnson is studied and practical, particularly now that he is a father. “He thinks things through,” says friend Ray Crockett, a cornerback for the Denver Broncos. “He doesn’t rush into anything. He had his first child in his 30s, and I think it was time.”
But surely there are some dizzying bursts of speed in the old man yet. Johnson likes his chances Down Under, despite the fact that he’ll turn 33 the day he lands in Sydney. On the subject of any tricks he might use to pump up his chances, he says, “There’s nothing I do before every race, no prerace ritual.” But, he adds with a confident, contented grin, “I do have a postrace ritual: I stand on the podium and have them put a gold medal around my neck.”
Zelie Pollon in Dallas