A new generation of US sprinters take their marks

As track and field begins at the Games, it is up to athletes like Lauryn Williams to set right a sport seared by scandal.

The instant that Marion Jones finished fifth in the 100-meter dash at last month's Olympic trials, the shape of the Games changed. In the 11 seconds from starting gun to finish line, the United States lost Sydney's five-medal starlet, the team's the most talked-about figure, and track and field's most recognizable face.

It's doubtful that Lauryn Williams can fill her shoes. After all, she's only 5 ft., 2 in. But think of the next two nights as her debutante ball - an introduction to this tiny engine of legs and laughs who learned to sprint in sixth grade by racing her German shepherd and winning.

Trading pumps for track spikes, Williams will stand before a national audience as the first in a new generation of American sprinters. Each has the potential to become the next Michael Johnson, the next Flo Jo - one for almost every night of the week: Shawn Crawford, Justin Gatlin, Sheena Johnson, Allyson Felix.

At this moment, they are virtually unknown. But during the next week, it will fall to them to set right a sport seared by scandal and show the world that the Olympics' foremost sprinting nation is in safe hands - and on fast feet.

"The US is going to make an impact," says Jon Hendershott of Track and Field News. "The US has got a huge talent pool, and there are always going to be primary American contenders."

Never has the United States needed that depth more than now. Gone is Tim Montgomery, the world-record holder in the 100-meter dash. Gone is Kelli White, world champion in the 100 meters, as well as Torri Edwards, who finished second in the event at the Olympic trials. There are others - in sprints, relays, and long- distance races - all cut down by charges in the nation's biggest doping scandal or seemingly thrown off their stride by it.

Yet none was greater than Jones. While she is still on the team in the long jump - and probably the 4x100 relay as well - her absence from the 100- and 200-meter dashes has left the Olympics' second week without their American star.

Williams, however, sees it a different way. "It's time for a new era," she says. "It's our time."

She is speaking of Sanya Richards and Dee Dee Trotter, Lashinda Demus and Sheena Johnson, the group of sprinters who have grown up together in junior races and college meets and are now ready to step beneath the latticed glass canopy of the Olympic Stadium.

In the women's 200 meters, Felix is US track and field's LeBron James, the future of the sport and a talent so stunning that she skipped college to directly enter the pro circuit - the first sprinter ever to attempt it. In the men's 100 meters Sunday night, newcomers Gatlin and Crawford - who are training partners - hope to make an American clean sweep with 2000 Olympic gold medalist Maurice Greene.

Yet Williams will be first, racing Friday in the preliminary rounds of the 100-meter dash, and - if she qualifies - again in the final Saturday. Asked about her competition in the race, she lists a few names, then pauses, smacks her hand on the table, and smiles: "But I'm going to win, so it doesn't matter anyway."

She has good reason to say it: She has clocked the world's second-fastest time in the 100 meters this year. Still, from any number of athletes, such a declaration might sound arrogant - one in a long line of self-centered pronouncements from sprinters convinced of their own brilliance. But not from Williams. In the next moment, she tells you about how she had to quit her greatest love - basketball - because she ran too fast to control the ball and because her shots could have broken backboards. "I even sat the bench on senior night," she smiles.

Williams is the Detroit girl who grew up on Seven Mile Road "near the McDonald's," as she describes it. The girl who describes Marion Jones's best advice to her as: "Wear two pairs of socks to the opening ceremonies."

Whatever mold you try to fit her in, she wriggles free. The former finance major at the University of Miami dates a running back on the football team and confesses to getting a "jolt" from lifting weights among the meat, sweat, and swearing of the football team. Then she speaks of a potential career in real estate as if it were as exciting as roller derby. One of her goals is to be a bank president.

On the track, she is equally unique. In a race of antelopes, she is a stock car pushing her needle deep into the red. While competitors stretch each stride with a royal grace, her sturdy legs are a churning frenzy, cartoonish in their intensity. In high school, basketball teammates called her "Tasmanian Devil."

"Every day you wake up is an opportunity to do something exciting," she says.

Today, she can start a new era in American track and field.

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