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Doing the Double: Michael Johnson raced into record books at 1996 Trials


By Emily Giambalvo, USATF Communications


Every four years, the Olympic Trials act as the gateway to the Games. Athletes can springboard toward history-making performances the following month.


For Michael Johnson 20 years ago, the Trials in Atlanta did just that. He won the 200 meters and the 400m, breaking the 200m world record along the way.


“Going into the summer, I was fully focused on preparing just for the Trials, not thinking necessarily about the Games at that point,” Johnson said. “I was fully focused on making sure I was in the best shape and the best preparation to go into those Trials and win the Trials.”


After Johnson’s 200m semifinal at Trials, he initially thought he broke the 17-year-old world record since he finished under the benchmark time. Shortly after, the wind was reported to be above the allowable threshold, thus invalidating his record.


“That was far from the perfect race,” Johnson said. “I knew that I was definitely in the shape to break the world record. Then it was just the matter of the next day if the wind cooperated.”


In the final, the conditions were right. Johnson ran a 19.66, officially making him the world’s fastest in the event and foreshadowing what was to come a month later at the Games.


At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Johnson repeated his pair of wins, this time breaking his own world record from Trials.


His first gold came in the 400m when he ran a 43.49, which marked an Olympic record. Johnson completed the double with a world-record time of 19.32 in the 200m. With that he became the only male to ever win both races at a single Games.


The scheduling of the Games made the feat difficult. Each event had four rounds, and his top competitors in the 200m also raced in the 100m, rather than the 400m like Johnson.


“Physically from a taxing standpoint, I was going to be putting myself at a disadvantage,” Johnson said.


Still, he finished the Games the same way as Trials — with two golds and a world record. And his Olympic success came while wearing shoes that matched the color of his medals.


The shoes’ design started about a year and a half before the Games. On the final prototype, Johnson said he liked how the fabric acted almost like a mirror. But his coach disagreed and said from the crowd people will only see a silver shoe.


“When he said, 'silver shoe' I thought, 'Well, I don't want silver. I'm going for gold so I want the shoe to be gold,’” Johnson said.


Before Johnson raced to his Olympic golds in 1996, he knew what to expect from the meet. Since Atlanta also hosted Trials, Johnson was already familiar with logistics of getting around the city, nearby accommodations and the Georgia heat.


Spectators too used Trials as a preview of the worldwide affair heading to Atlanta.


“There was a fantastic energy in the city for the Trials as well,” Johnson said. “It was a forecast of what was to come with the Games a month later.”


After the Atlanta Games, Johnson won the Olympic gold in Sydney four years later to become the only male to repeat as the 400m champion. A year before that, he claimed the 400m world record, beginning a period of nine years in which he held both the 200m and the 400m records.


Johnson finished his career with 12 golds, no silver and no bronze at the Olympic and World Championship level.


“I continued to set my goals higher and higher based on the things I was able to accomplish in the sport,” Johnson said.


Even now, 20 years later, Johnson’s best marks near the top of the world’s standings. He still ranks as the best of all time in the 400m and is third in the 200m.


His time in the 400m at 1996 Trials — the race that kicked off his Olympic summer — is the fourth fastest time in history.


With the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field coming to a close, Johnson said he watches the sport just like any other track fan. But for the athletes hoping to carve themselves into the sport’s history, he understands what’s at stake and the reward that follows a successful Trials.


“They're going to the Olympic Games,” Johnson said. “It's the pinnacle of any track athlete's career, and they're going to be Olympians for the rest of their lives.”


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