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JOHNSON CAN'T BE CAUGHT - DESPITE STRANGE STYLE

Published: Thursday, June 20 1996 12:00 a.m. MDT

Michael Johnson cruises the track in his familiar piston-like style, with short, choppy steps and his head arched sharply back. The sprint superstar runs about as upright as you can get without falling backward.

Aesthetically pleasing, no. Yet, if you listen to his camp, Johnson has the most efficient running style in the sport. A style that bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics."That's just the way I run," Johnson said. "I never tried to change it. I never said, `OK, everybody else is running this other way, I need to do something else.'

"I looked at it with my coach (Clyde Hart), analyzed it on high-speed film, slowed it down, looked at it frame by frame, measured stride length, stride frequency . . . it happens to be much more efficient than guys I'm running against."

Who's to argue?

It's rare that a runner excels in both of Johnson's events because the 200 meters tends to favor short, compact runners with choppy strides while the 400 favors lanky runners with long strides. Johnson (6-foot-1, 175 pounds), a natural 200 man, has managed to cross over with his arched-back technique.

Later this summer, if all goes according to plan, Johnson, 28, aims to become the first man to win both the 200 and 400 at the same Olympics. (One woman, Valerie Brisco of the U.S., pulled off the double at the 1984 Games.)

Johnson's style, more upright than most sprinters and with shorter but faster strides, has been called unorthodox by some.

"Early on, people were critical of the way he ran," said Hart, his longtime coach at Baylor. "What they didn't understand is he was the model and the others were wrong. They said, `He runs with a shorter stride, runs straight up and down, doesn't have the traditional long stride and body lean of a quarter-miler.' What they don't realize is the longest stride is in the 100 meters, and as you progress up (in distance), strides become shorter.

"In the quarter-mile, his stride really helps him because he's efficient and saving energy while moving down the track. That's why he's able to have that move in the end.

"And contrary to what people think, straight up and down is the most energy efficient way to run. I didn't teach him that. I'm just smart enough not to change it."

Just last year, Ralph Mann, a former Olympic silver medalist in the 400 hurdles and biomechanics specialist who uses science to analyze sprinters, broke down Johnson's races and found his form to be near perfect. Because of his training, conditioning and mechanics, Johnson was found to maintain his form better and longer than any of his rivals.

While Johnson's body type - with a long torso and shorter legs than most sprinters - produces shorter strides, it also produces greater turnover.

"I'm not wasting time or motion," Johnson said, simply.

But what also separates Johnson is his stamina and strength, built up training the last decade under Hart. He has impressive leg strength and, according to his coach, can bench press 225 pounds "all day."

Hart suggests he could give the same daily workouts to the other sprinters, and none could duplicate what Johnson does.

A terrific curve runner, Johnson typically blows the 400-meter field away with his third 100 meters.

"Michael could always run a 400, but he was afraid of it," said UCLA sprint coach John Smith. "He's allowed himself to get fitter and fitter. And as he's gotten older, he's gotten stronger. The race is an endurance race, and his body has gotten mature. He hasn't gotten sloppy.

"He's planning for this. He's not changed coaches, not changed agents. He's basically done it the ideal way, looked long range and not gotten greedy."

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