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After a hard fall, a 2nd run at glory

By Dan Dewitt, Times Stfaf Writer
Published February 24, 2008

A determined John Capel sets up for a practice start during a rainy practice at Disney's Wide World of Sports in Orlando on Thursday.
[Photo by Will Vragovic]
[Photo by Will Vragovic]
Brooks Johnson coaches John Capel in Orlando on Thursday. Johnson agreed to train Capel after Capel approached him last fall. So far, he says, Capel has been disciplined, unlike in the past.

John Capel was the favorite to win the 200 meters in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, but a mental mistake cost him. Now he's trying to make it to Beijing.
[Photo by Will Vragovic]

John Capel says it wasn't nothing unusual about a former Olympic sprinter working for Flagstone Pavers in Brooksville, driving a forklift and picking defective blocks from outgoing orders.

It wasn't a letdown after traveling the world and racing in front of huge crowds. It didn't bother one of track's biggest talents to leave work covered in dust.

"I had a good job," Capel, 29, said last week at Disney's Wide World of Sports training complex in Lake Buena Vista. "I got to come home every day after a hard day's work and eat dinner with my family. It was a regular, family job."

This quality has always made Capel likable, but it always made you wonder if he had ever faced up to how he has treated his athletic gift: He doesn't like to admit to disappointment, not even one so hard to ignore as the 200-meter finals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

"It was his," said his new coach, Brooks Johnson, 73 and a member of the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame. "That race was his."

Capel lost it, with seemingly the whole town of Brooksville watching on television, when he paused for an instant after the gun sounded, mistakenly thinking he had false started. Instead of winning, as expected, he finished eighth.

But when he returned, he said he had just been happy for the chance to go to the Olympics, and happy that his parents could join him.

He never blamed his missteps in Sydney when he left track and tried - and failed - to catch on in the National Football League. He never mentioned it when he talked about his problems with marijuana, being booted from the Olympic team after failing a drug test in 2004 or being suspended from the sport for two years after a failing a second one in 2006.

In fact, he barely admitted that they were troubles. "Weed was a fault of mine," he said last year, but it wasn't nearly as bad as taking steroids, like many other runners. At least he wasn't a cheater.

Hard to argue with that. But hard not to think, too, that it would have helped to notice that marijuana was crippling his career.

The news is that he seems to have noticed now, as he nears 30 and takes his last realistic chance at the Olympics this summer in Beijing.

Capel approached Johnson last fall after deciding he was ready to quit Flagstone and get back to serious training.

Johnson, who calls Capel "exceptionally talented and exceptionally undisciplined," agreed to take him on with one provision:

"There wasn't going to be any bulls---."

So far, he said, there hasn't been. Capel has passed 22 drug tests since the beginning of his suspension, which ends next month. He trains every day during the week with Johnson at Disney, and returns home to wife, Sandy, and their three children on weekends.

He is dedicated enough that on Thursday he practiced in pouring rain. He has thrived under Johnson's technical approach - the fine adjustments his coach has made to the angles of Capel's arms and legs to ensure that all the energy he expends propels him forward.

Two weeks ago in practice, Capel ran a 19:97 in the 200, not far off his personal best of 19:85. Also, Capel said, "I think I could pass Physics 101."

On Thursday, Capel worked mostly on his start, leaning far forward as he bolted from the blocks, throwing his arms back like coiled springs, ready to whip them forward.

This has made him more confident in his start, he said, and he admits that wasn't always the case.

"For a long time, I was thinking about not making a mistake," he said.

He goes a little bit further, hinting that maybe falling so hard - and at such a young age - hurt him more than he ever let on.

"For a long time after Sydney, I wasn't much of a competitor," he said.

Maybe the time has come for the people of his hometown to recognize what he has - how much it must have hurt for a sport that had always brought him glory to bring him embarrassment in front of the world.

Brooksville residents honored Capel with a ceremony on the steps of the Hernando County Courthouse before he left for Sydney, and donated money so his parents could join him.

They wanted to share in his success, he said, but didn't want any part of failure.

"People would tell me not to make the same mistake next time. They were better at breaking down my races than I am," he said. "It was like, what have you done for me lately."

Capel is partly to blame for this, of course, but he's got a point. Many people remember his failed football tryouts and drug tests, and his disastrous hesitation in Sydney.

Few talk, as his coach does, about him being smart, funny and devoted to his family. Few remember he won the world championship in 2003, maybe the greatest individual accomplishment by any Hernando County athlete.

Hardly anybody, as far as I know, has gotten behind him as he tries to make it to Beijing.

Maybe it's time we do.

[Last modified February 23, 2008, 19:42:08]

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