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Johnson substitutes visual disability with clear sight of Olympic glory

Johnson substitutes visual disability with clear sight of Olympic glory

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Associated Press

Allen Johnson had perfect vision for six hours of his entire life. He never wants it again.

The Olympic hurdles champion was born virtually unable to see out of his left eye. Then in 1997, he was fitted with a special contact lens that gave him full sight. After a few hours, Johnson got a severe headache and a case of sensory overload.

"It was too much," he said. "I couldn't take it. I was like, 'Wow this is what everybody has to deal with every day? How do they handle this?' It was wild."

So he got rid of the lens and went on with his life. After all, he already cleared that major hurdle en route to winning gold in the 1996 Olympics.

Now Johnson is a favorite once again to win the 110-meter hurdles in Athens. He is the only person to win four world outdoor hurdle titles, and won his third world indoor 60 hurdles title this month in Budapest, Hungary.

At 33, he keeps getting better and is desperate to win again after what happened at the Sydney Olympics, knowing this might be his last shot at gold.

"Getting close to the end of your career brings more sensitivity for wanting to succeed as a two-time medalist," said his coach, Curtis Frye. "I've never seen less of an intense purpose toward any goal."

All the success is even more impressive knowing Johnson has jumped over hurdle after hurdle despite blurry vision in his left eye. He never told coaches or friends he was legally bind in that eye. Just never thought it was important.

"Nobody really knew," Johnson said. "I just never brought it up to anybody. It was something that would come up later, just talking."

Frye had no idea about the limitation when he started coaching Johnson at the University of North Carolina in 1992. So, he put Johnson through the same routines he would any other hurdler.

"Not knowing probably was a benefit," said Frye, now the head track and field coach at South Carolina. "I, in turn, did not make him abnormal in his adjustments. He has accomplished a great deal with the handicap.

"I think it affects him most when he has someone who is aggressive on that side. When people hurdle in the center, he can concentrate on hurdling and less on getting bumped."

There is one slight disadvantage for Johnson when he races: He can never see whether someone is gaining on him.

"I've learned from the years that in my left eye, if I can see the image then you're already in front of me," Johnson said. "I just know to keep everybody out of my sights."

He certainly has done that, especially in the last two years. Johnson has enjoyed a quiet resurgence.

He entered the 2000 Olympics with high hopes for repeating as champion. But he injured his hamstring just before the games, hindering his performance in Sydney. After winning the U.S. trials in a world-leading 12.97 seconds, he finished fourth at the Olympics in 13.23.

Injuries held him back the next few seasons. But he is atop the world again, beating younger opponents.

Among them: former training partner Terrence Trammell, 26, considered the next great hurdler. Trammell finished second to Johnson last year at the U.S. and world championships.

No one is surprised at Johnson's resiliency.

"If you know Allen, I wouldn't say it's amazing," said fellow hurdler Larry Wade, who sometimes trains with Johnson. "It's one of those things that's understood."

At world outdoors last year, Johnson surpassed Greg Foster's record three championships, with victories in 1995, 1997, 2001 and 2003.

He is off to another fast start this year, winning the U.S. indoor title in addition to the world title. Another Olympic gold medal could seal his place as the top hurdler of all time.

"He is the best all-time hurdler," Frye said. "He is not the fastest hurdler, he is probably with his mechanics the best technician ever. But he's not the most heralded. He's not the most outspoken or controversial as many other hurdlers have been."

Johnson wants another crack at gold, even though he already has accomplished so much.

"I'm going to keep going until the wheels fall off," he said. "But I'm realistic with myself. I realize this could be my last Olympics. So I do keep that in mind. I hope it's not, but Sydney taught me that nothing is guaranteed."

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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