Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Calvin Smith II follows in father's footsteps
DES MOINES, Iowa -- In grade school, teachers always asked him to bring his father in for show and tell.
In high school, track coaches wanted him to invite his dad to practice.
For Calvin Smith II, sharing the same name and being the son of Calvin Smith carries a lot of weight. It's not easy following in the footsteps of a former world-record holder, world champion, Olympic medalist and Hall of Famer.
That's why, at an early age, the son decided he wasn't going to be a 100-meter sprinter like his father, but rather he would make a name for himself in his own event, the 400, and stand out on his own merits.
One thing's for sure: He certainly inherited his father's speed as he competes this week at the U.S. championships.
Then again, he did grow up at the track, watching one of the fastest men in the world hone his skills.
Just like his father, he works hard at his craft, not relying on lineage to propel him to the finish line.
"All my friends used to be like, `It's already in your blood to run fast. You don't have to even practice," Smith said.
And also just like his father, Smith prefers to blend in, not really be the center of attention. That is, until he steps on the track.
"I like to be in the background. People notice me but don't really notice me," said Smith, who lives in Gainesville, Fla., while his father resides in Tampa. "When I win a race, they're like, `Oh, OK, who's that?"
That, of course, is the sprinter with the famous father, a name the son can't hide from. He insists that growing up with a name so synonymous with speed wasn't a burden. Well, maybe sometimes, like when he was running at the University of Florida and the announcers would introduce him.
"They would be like, `That's the son of Calvin Smith on the track," the 25-year-old recounted. "Put the spotlight right on me. It's like, `Zoom, now I've got to win the race. But that's about all the pressure."
The two are tight. Real tight. Although his father isn't expected to be at Drake Stadium for nationals, he will be checking in. Before every competition, they go over race strategy.
"I've always looked up to him," the son said. "He's a big factor in my life."
Smith Sr. maintains it was his idea that his son try out the 400. Sure, his son was a good 100 sprinter, but after seeing him race just once around the oval, the father was convinced he could be an elite athlete in the 400.
"I said, `OK, the 400 is your event, you've got the speed and you're a hard worker -- the 400 is great for you," he said. "But if you ask him today, he'll say he's a sprinter."
Through the years, the son has gone back and watched quite a few of his father's races.
His favorite? Easy, the world record performance.
On July 3, 1983, fresh off a grueling season at the University of Alabama, Smith Sr. headed to Colorado Springs, Colo., for a meet. He took a few days off to rest his legs before the race and wasn't really expecting to run all that fast.
Refreshed, he launched out the blocks and glided down the track, knowing he ran well, but now sure how well.
And then it flashed -- 9.93 seconds, breaking Jim Hines' world mark that had stood for nearly 15 years.
"I couldn't believe it," Smith Sr. said. "I just couldn't believe it."
Ask him about the 100 race at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and his voice grows lower. That competition remains a sensitive subject.
It's a race featured in the ESPN documentary special, "9.79," by filmmaker Daniel Gordon. The plot line focuses on the final and its colorful characters -- from Ben Johnson and rivals Carl Lewis, to Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Robson Da Silva, Smith, Ray Stewart and Desai Williams.
That day, Smith Sr. finished fourth behind Johnson, Lewis and Christie. Later, Smith was bumped up to bronze after Johnson was disqualified for failing a drug test.
"What can you do?" Smith Sr. said. "In many cases, the sport was condoning the athletes taking drugs. Ben was typical of what was going on in the sport there."
The son didn't really know the story behind his father's medal until watching the documentary.
It opened his eyes. But what truly aggravated him was hearing how his father received his medal: In relative quiet instead of in front of a roaring crowd.
"There should've been a new ceremony, so he could get on the platform, stand in front of the crowd, while he received his medal," Smith said. "Not getting it under the stands."
His dad concurs.
"That was the most disappointing thing," said Smith Sr., who also helped the 400-meter relay team win gold at the 1984 Summer Games and was inducted into U.S. track's Hall of Fame in 2007.
Smith Sr.'s style helped inspire another generation of sprinters, including Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay.
"He's one of the most underrated 100-meter sprinters," Gatlin said. "A fierce competitor from what I know and from what I've watched."
The same can be said of his son. Smith attended Florida, where he became a 16-time All-American.
"I had to be a Gator fan for a while. Now that was hard," said his dad, a loyal Alabama supporter. "I didn't push him to run. He always wanted to run and wanted to follow in my footsteps to be a great athlete."
The father laughed.
"He always said, `I'm going to be better than you," Smith Sr. said. "I think he's enjoyed knowing and learning what I've done. But he's trying to be better. He's determined to be a good runner, make a name for himself in the 400; be known as a great 400 runner. I'm proud of him."