The Olympian from Brooksville says God and prayer are his guiding forces.
By GREG AUMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000
When John Capel secured a ticket to the Olympics with his improbable 200-meter win at the U.S. Olympic trials, he attributed it to two things: his father's presence in the stands and a greater presence in his life.
"There's more to what I'm doing than just me," the 21-year-old from Brooksville said. "A lot of people say, "Oh, he's practicing really hard.' They don't know how many prayers I say going around that track. Every time I get in the blocks, I say, "God, be with me.' Every time I get ready for a workout, I say, "God, help me with this workout.' "
At the July trials, favorites Michael Johnson, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist, and Maurice Greene, the 1999 world champion, pulled up with injuries in the 200 final, but Capel believes divine intervention came in his performance. By posting a personal-best time of 19.85 seconds -- faster than any runner he'll face in Sydney this month -- the former Hernando High star and one-time and possibly future University of Florida football player suddenly became a medal contender. Ask him how he has done it, and he'll smile and say only God knows.
"When I look at myself running on tape, that's not me running. It's my body," Capel said last month from his apartment in Gainesville, where he was training. "There's a greater power working within that body to make me move as fast as I'm moving. They say I'm just a fast runner. It's this and that. No, no, no. It's called getting on your knees and praying."
Capel's first track experiences were with the Jesus And Me team in Brooksville. Coach Rick Munford said Capel, whose father is a minister, had a strong religious background before he joined the team and his faith grew as his love of running did.
"He was a special kind of kid," Munford said. "He plays a lot, but he prays a lot, too. He prays every race. You might see him turn his back for a moment or hold his cross, but he does it before every race. Win or lose, he still does it."
Before relays, Jesus And Me runners hold their baton and say a prayer that Munford said Capel came up with: "Lord, help us with the talent you gave us to do our best. Protect all the other runners and let them do their best as well so this can be the best race it can be."
Capel knows what people think about all this talk of religion. "You see it on TV with those people, and you think, "Oh, that's fake. That's phony,' " he said. "But when you feel it yourself, it's different."
Capel, the second-youngest of 11 children, said he was 11 when he broke a foot in a youth league football game. Trainers taped it, and he hobbled around. The next day at school, he fell down a staircase and was sent home, his foot hurting worse than before.
"That week, we were having a revival at my church, so my bishop was there," Capel said. "He prayed for my foot. Right then, I could feel things happening in my foot, bones popping back into place. I got those prayers, and the next day I was at practice, no tape, nothing, better than I was before."
Much of Capel's faith comes from his father, the Rev. John Capel Sr., associate pastor for 21 years at Holy Band Deliverance Temple, a small, red church on the south edge of Brooksville.
At the Olympic trials, after Capel failed to make the 100-meter final, he lost his confidence. He called his father and asked him to fly to Sacramento, Calif., for his next event. Once he knew his father was coming, he told his coach to pack their bags for Sydney. Father and son prayed together; then he ran the ninth-fastest 200 time in history. Capel can't help but think of God when he is with his father. It's not because his father is a minister. It's because his father is alive.
"My dad almost died when I was 7," he said. "He had an aneurysm on his brain, a stroke. They said, "Oh, he's going to be a vegetable. He won't ever walk or talk again.' They said it would take my dad 2-3 years to get full motion back. A month and a half later, my dad was up walking and at my football games. If you didn't know my dad, you'd never know. My bishop prayed for my dad, and after then, we knew everything was going to be fine."
Capel's father and mother, Virginia, will be in Sydney to watch their son, which pushes his confidence "into space somewhere, Pluto maybe," he said. Just as he finds strength in religion, he finds comfort in having family close by.
"We have that bond together," John Sr. said. "You've got to have faith to understand. My children were brought up that way. They might not run, but they sing in choirs to show their faith. We try to put the Lord first in everything we do."
Capel's father used to catch rides to other counties to get to his son's football games, understanding what it meant to be there for John Jr.
"My dad sometimes would go to football games with no money, not knowing if he had a way back home," John Jr. said. "We'd just catch a ride back home with some random person. My dad has followed me in every sport I've played. Everything I've ever tried, my dad was there."
The Capels couldn't afford to travel to Australia to see their son in the Olympics, but fundraising drives raised more than $28,000, more than enough to send his parents to Sydney.
They will be there Sept. 27 when Capel runs in the 200-meter preliminaries. And if he doesn't even make the final, he said, it's part of a plan.
There's another Olympics in four years, but Capel doesn't know what he'll be doing then. Whether he's running or not, in the Olympics or not, he knows God will be with him.
"I'll see a lot of athletes that say, "I ran a great race,' " Capel said. "Well, God was there, too, right alongside of you. That's one of my motivations: I'll never run as fast as God. I'm always trying to catch up to him. He's one person you'll never have that step on. If no one else in the world beats me, I know there's one person that can."
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