Commentary

Don't bet against Carmelita Jeter

Updated: June 15, 2012, 2:58 PM ET
By Luke Cyphers

NEW YORK -- The world's fastest woman wandered alone among the world-class athletes gathered on the warm-up field next to Icahn Stadium, with a posture and an expression on her face that has been a rare sight on the elite track circuit the past three years.

Carmelita Jeter looked lost.

Jeter had just finished third in the 100 meters, behind Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and fellow American Tianna Madison, at the adidas Grand Prix. Jeter crossed the line in 11.05 seconds -- 0.13 seconds behind Fraser-Pryce, 0.24 off her season's best, and nearly a half-second slower than her eye-popping personal record of 10.64 set in 2009.

Even worse, this was Jeter's second bad race in a row, the first being a June 2 drubbing she took in the 200 meters from Allyson Felix at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. That loss took place on the same track where Jeter failed to make the U.S. team at the 2008 Olympic trials, the same track that will play host to the 2012 trials that start in two weeks.

No wonder Jeter seemed a bit bewildered.

Yet, as the U.S. trials and London Games approach, it wouldn't be smart to bet against "Jet," as she is known. Her career has stalled before, and she has made a habit of regaining altitude.

Carmelita Jeter
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCarmelita Jeter is still not certain whether she'll attempt the 100-200 double at the upcoming Olympic trials. 'We have to see how my body feels and then we're going to go from there.'

"Like any sport, you have your good days and your bad days -- Kobe doesn't go for 40 every game," said Jeter, who started her sports career as a high school point guard and grew up a Los Angeles Lakers fan. "The question is, 'What do you do the next time?' I hope that I'm an example to high schoolers and college kids. Hey, it happens. Some kids might have a bad race and feel like it's over for them, but it's not. Go back to practice!"

That approach has worked well for Jeter, leading her to a remarkable resurgence in the past three years. After winning a bronze medal in the 100 at the 2007 world championships, Jeter was a favorite to make the 2008 Olympic team. Instead, she bombed out at the trials. What rose from the ashes was a woman who won gold at last year's worlds in Daegu, South Korea, in the 100 and 4x100 relay, helping wrest back the U.S. claim as the top women's sprint country from Jamaica. She also took the silver in the 200 at Daegu, showing remarkable durability at age 31.

But Jeter's times are what everyone in track talks about. Only two women in history have run a 100 under 10.7 since the late Florence Griffith-Joyner did it in 1988: Jeter, who did it twice in 2009, and the disgraced Marion Jones. And Jeter's 10.64 in Shanghai bettered Jones' doping-aided time of 10.65. For good measure, Jeter posted a 10.70 mark in Eugene at the 2011 Prefontaine meet.

Being mentioned in the same sentence with Jones can be problematic; and as soon as Jeter's times went up, so did suspicions about their legitimacy, suspicions that follow any track athlete with an outstanding performance.

Everysinglearticle about Jeter's rise has at least one paragraph explaining that her 100 personal record was a pedestrian 11.48 in 2006 and fell to a super-Olympian 10.64 three years later. Most of the articles also contain the word "rumors."

This is the way of the post-BALCO world. Not that Jeter is happy about it. "I've just come to the grips that it is what it is," she said. "It just gets annoying when journalists ask me over and over again the same questions. It just seems people can't do an interview without asking me that. That bugs me."

Jeter has never failed a drug test for performance-enhancing drugs. She comes from an athletic gene pool; her brother Eugene, aka "Pooh," had an outstanding basketball career at the University of Portland, played for a year in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings and has played several years in Europe. And Jeter's early development in the hothouse sprint world of Southern California was a slow progression. She didn't run for a track club and didn't take up the sport until her freshman year at Bishop Montgomery High, where her hoops coach suggested she try out. "We had like a 300-meter dirt track that ran into the grass," she said. "There was no strategy to anything I did. I was just running off natural talent."

That talent earned her a scholarship to nearby Division II Cal State-Dominguez Hills, where Jeter became the first runner from the school to qualify for the Olympic trials, in 2004. It didn't happen overnight, said Cal State coach Warren Edmonson. When he took the job in 2001, he found in Jeter a redshirt freshman running 12.1.

"I saw her in high school, and the talent was there," Edmonson said, "but her work habits weren't that good." Fairly soon, though, she was down to 11.6 and on her way to three runner-up finishes in the 100 with a collegiate-best time of 11.43. The whole time there, the priority was academics. "I don't regret it at all," Jeter said. "I got the opportunity to be trained by Coach Edmonson, who cared more about you graduating than your running."

I was that person that if you beat me, I'm going to race you again. Let's go again. If we play ball and you beat me, I'm going to play you again. Let's go again.

-- Carmelita Jeter

Jeter earned a kinesiology degree, but found her career path at those 2004 Olympic trials in Sacramento. "Once I got a taste of that professional environment," she said, "I wanted it."

But hamstring injuries hindered her progress, so much so that Edmonson remembers talking Jeter out of quitting the sport late in 2005. After some positive results in 2006, her breakout year came the following year, when she ran 11.02 to take World Championship bronze in Osaka. The success, though, set her up for a fall. At the 2008 trials, she failed to make the 100 final and finished sixth in the 200. "I learned you can't take anything for granted," Jeter said. "I learned that this needs to be your job. This needs to be your life, other than something you do from 9 to 12. I learned the hard way."

That hard-earned knowledge led her to hire John Smith as her coach in late 2008. Jeter rocketed to stardom under Smith, one of the most respected technical sprint coaches in the world; but with that success came scrutiny.

Still, former Olympic sprint relay gold medalist Jon Drummond says women's times were overdue to come down when Jeter hit her stride. "I may get in trouble for saying this, but I don't care. I think women have been underperforming in the 100," said Drummond, who now coaches Marshevet Myers and Tyson Gay. "I think what Carmelita has done is put it into proper perspective. When you have a world record out there, everyone is supposed to graduate down to that. The men do it."

With each dip in the men's record, the men's field followed en masse. "The women have been stuck at 10.9," Drummond said. "They should have been running in the 10.7s years ago. What Carmelita is doing is waking everybody up: 'Hey, we need to catch up to our world record.'"

Jeter's competitors acknowledge her success provides a boost to the sport. "Any time someone raises the level, it raises the level of everyone," Felix said. "So you have to step up your game if you're going to compete."

Added Trinidad's Kelly-Ann Baptiste, who has run a 10.8: "I think a lot of people thought certain times were out of touch, and I think [Jeter] brought them back to the sport. I admire that about her. It brings more substance to our event."

It brings more stress, too, but Jeter betrays none of it during interviews. "Other people would tell me, 'Oh my God, she's the fastest woman alive,' and I'd say, 'Oh [pause] yeah [pause], I am," Jeter said. "I don't really like attention that much."

The only thing worse than attention, though, is a lack thereof. Jeter's official website is not shy about calling her "the fastest woman alive," and she has been generous with her time to the media. But she knows her livelihood and legacy depend on her tireless work with Smith.

The coach, who worked with sprint superstars Maurice Green and Ato Boldon, among others, disassembled every part of Jeter's running mechanics and reassembled them into what he calls a more technically efficient style. Smith harps on the importance of video and digital analysis of her stride, and takes credit for things like limiting Jeter's head movements while she runs. For her part, Jeter mostly avoids explaining the details, claiming she just does what Smith tells her.

[+] EnlargeCarmelita Jeter and John Smith
Jonathan Newton/Getty ImagesCarmelita Jeter has been working with coach John Smith since late 2008.

She does divulge that Smith changed "a lot of my front-side mechanics," including "bringing my arms up to my face and down." And she added: "My start's a lot better than it used to be. I used to spot everybody like three meters."

Now, she's able to "let everything unfold, instead of the gun going off, me stepping one step straight up and then just running."

And she will allow that Smith's approach, excruciating in detail and heavy on repetition, is grueling. "John Smith is just not a physical coach, he's a mental coach," Jeter said. "He really gets into your brain, and he pushes you to get the best out of yourself and to demand more from yourself."

That meant off the track as well as on it. In 2008, Jeter was a part-time coach at her old high school while training for the Olympics. "When you're at this level, you have to be a little selfish," Jeter said. "I was devoting too much time to other things, and not really devoting everything to myself."

Smith's training group includes Walter Dix, a silver medalist in the 100 and 200 at last year's world championships, and Jason Richardson, the reigning world champion in the 110 hurdles. They share misery, and a lot of punchy laughter with Jeter, in the midst of workouts. "The amount of pressure we have at practice rivals the pressure we have at a meet," Richardson said. "So we joke and we have fun. There's no point in working so hard and not enjoying it."

The humor is usually juvenile (there are plenty of YouTube references) and full of inside jokes. "If there's a 2 percent chance it's funny, we're going to laugh at it," Richardson said. "We use a lot of accents, which are terrible. My British accent is way better than hers. Her Jamaican accent actually sounds Australian."

Away from the training track at West Los Angeles College, Jeter lives comfortably in a quiet neighborhood 10 minutes from LAX, with family members able to take care of her five cats while she's away, and neighbors watching over her house. "My house is very warm," she said. "My colors are warm; orange and taupe and chocolate brown. I have an inviting house, a peaceful house. I don't allow drama to come into my life."

Like it or not, there will be drama for the next eight weeks. She has lost two straight high-profile races and her times have devolved so far this season. She has to ponder whether her body can take the punishment of doubling in the 100 and 200.

"When you're at the Olympic trials," she said, "you're running from every gut that you have to get on that team. After that 100, I'm going to have to be smart … because you don't want to run really fast in the 100 and then come back [in the 200] and then something tragic happens."

And at 32, Jeter isn't getting any younger. But she's inspired by a sense of mission. "I want to be remembered as a great athlete, an athlete girls look up to," Jeter said. "That athlete that the girls are at practice saying, 'Oh, I want to be like Jet.'"

She loves that kids come up to her, tongue-tied and grateful that she'll chat. "I was that kid," she said. "If I saw Magic Johnson at the game, I was like, 'Oh my god, that's Magic.' So when I get a chance to return the favor, I know exactly how that kid feels."

Add to that mission a sense of destiny. She talks about the revelation she had at the 2004 trials -- she was certain she would be a professional and a champion. "I swear, I put my hand up, I just knew," she said. "I knew I was going to excel."

Of course, she knew then there would be losses, too, like the ones she has experienced this month. She claims setbacks don't faze her because they never have, at least not for long. "I was that person that if you beat me, I'm going to race you again. Let's go again," she said. "If we play ball and you beat me, I'm going to play you again. Let's go again."

Some bad press? A bad memory of the previous Olympic trials? A bad race or two?

Jeter's response is the same as it ever was.

"Let's go again."

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.