Three years ago in the cavernous Olympic Stadium in Sydney, John Capel's world crumbled around him. One of the most promising sprinters in the world, the young American froze in the blocks, and literally put his career on ice.
"A lot of people thought that I couldn't do it again," he said last night after claiming the World title in the 200 metres in 20.30. "That after Sydney, that my head was too messed up to come back and be able to compete at this level. To be blessed and to do it again, it's tremendous feeling."
The ghosts, though, are still there.
"Sydney, Australia haunts me every night," he said. "It took the fire out of me. To actually be back here again to show that I can be one of the top sprinters in the world, it helps me out a lot."
Capel's return earlier this year was as swift as it was surprising.
His road back began in Gainesville's Florida Intercollegiate meet on January 18 with 6.15 in the 55 metres, equaling his PR. In the final, he improved a notch to 6.14.
"That first race back was scary," he said, laughing. "I hadn't been in the blocks for two years. There was a lot of pressure on my mind. I'm not saying there was pressure on me to run, but it was pressure on my mind, actually being back in the blocks after two years. I had a real crazy feeling."
Capel first appeared on most radar screens when he emerged as the winner of the much-ballyhooed 200 metres showdown between Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene at the 2000 Olympic trials, clocking a personal best 19.85.
But even then, at just 21, he was anything but an upstart. Even with a healthy Johnson and Greene, Capel was well on the way to a spot on the Olympic team. He won the 1999 NCAA 200 title in 19.87, and finished second in the 100 that year in a PR 10.03. He emerged from the 2000 indoor season as the fastest ever American over 200 meters, after finishing behind Shawn Crawford in a virtual dead heat at the NCAA Indoor Championships. Their 20.26 has only been bettered by three other sprinters. That Spring, he left the University of Florida to concentrate fully on his Olympic preparation, which ultimately led to his September trip to Sydney.
In Sydney, he breezed through the rounds, and with his 20.10 from the semis the fastest clocking of the competition, gold was seemingly his for the taking. But Capel, perhaps dazzled by the crowd of nearly 100,000 in Sydney's Olympic stadium, ostensibly froze in the blocks. At least that's what his reaction time -a listless 0.348-would indicate. Some felt the race should have been called back because he actually jumped from the blocks
- Capel agrees - but it wasn't, and he finished last in 20.49.
That was to be his last race on the track for more than two years. He chased, and arguably lived out, his professional football dream after brief stints with the Chicago Bears and Kansas City Chiefs.
He resumed training in earnest last September, but said that convincing long-time coach Mike Halloway that he was serious was perhaps the toughest item on his comeback agenda.
"Yes it was [difficult]," he said. "Last year (2001) when I came out [of the NFL], I told him I was going to run. Then Kansas City called me, and I left immediately and got on a plane to Kansas City. And for him to take me back, he said, 'the only way I'm going to train you is if I see that you're serious.' "
That "convincing," Capel said, reached fruition one morning when he hit the track at dawn. "I had to baby sit my daughter that evening, and when he saw me out on the track at about 6:30 or 6:45, after that he knew that it was all business and that I was ready to go. And our relationship has been improving ever since. I just had to prove to him that I was ready to do this."
In the past, admirers of his raw talent were often his harshest critics, reeling off countless examples of his immaturity both on and off the track. Capel agrees, and humbly admits that he had some growing up to do. That growing up process began with the birth of his daughter, Janya, and his marriage to wife Sandy, soon after he left track.
"I started growing up at that point," he said. "A little before then I realized that I had to start doing more for my family. 'Enough is enough,' " he told himself, " 'You lived your dream, you tried your dream.' So I sat down and talked to my wife and we got everything situated. The only way I'd reach my goals and she reached hers was if we grew together. I grew up by becoming a father and a husband. I knew the only person that can change [those mistakes] is me."
"My mistake was leaving track and field," he continues. "I should have never left. My maturity level wasn't there at the time." In hindsight, he concedes, he wasn't ready to be an Olympic champion.
"I don't think I could have taken being the Olympic gold medallist at the 2000 Olympics. I don't think I was ready for that kind of fame, that kind of stuff, that maturity level that needs to come with winning an Olympic gold medal. I don't think I was mature enough to take that yet."
Capel said he has no regrets. His mistakes, his penchant for finding trouble, his immaturity, he said, have made him the champion that he is today.
"To be where I am right now, I'd do all over again. I'm finally here. And if my road had to be that bumpy, that hard, then I'll take it. Put some more bumps there and I'll see if I can cross those too."