Angelo Taylor is on the verge of becoming the greatest Olympic hurdler in history, but a painful injury a year ago nearly derailed his plans of becoming the first to win three gold medals in the 400-meter hurdles
The sunglasses were a mask, a cloak hiding just about everything you need to know about Angelo Taylor.
Tucked beneath the shades, out of the glare of the spotlight — beneath the glitz and glamour of being on the world stage — there were tears, bitter, pain-soaked tears.
Angelo Taylor was crying.
That’s what no one saw as Taylor stood on the track just before running in the 400-meter hurdles of the World Championships.
It was just about a year ago.
Taylor’s foot was screaming, and he blinked back the tears as he walked onto the track.
“I was in so much pain,’’ said Taylor, who was battling plantar fasciitis, a crippling injury on the bottom portion of his foot that shot streaks of fire through the top of his head. “As I was getting ready for the race, tears were just running down my face. I had my shades and nobody could see the tears.”
Taylor continued: “It was hard for me to go. It was a tough injury. When I would get up in the morning and take my first steps out of bed, every step was pain.’’
Still, he ran in the World Championship finals that day. He finished seventh and left the track on crutches.
The next time Taylor leaves the track he plans on floating off of it — floating right into history. Many dream of winning a gold medal in the Olympics, but Taylor dreams of immortality. That’s what winning a third gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles in the Olympic Games could mean to Taylor.
The Olympic Games open today in London, and there isn’t a better story than the one Taylor is trying to write, one for the ages. No one has ever won three golds in the 400 hurdles, and the only other man who won two is the face of Olympic hurdles, a legend whose legacy has become part of the lore of the Games themselves.
That’s where Edwin Moses, the greatest hurdler of all time, sits today.
In an odd but fitting metaphor, Taylor plans to hurdle Moses and land where no man has ever been. Daunting, ambitious and almost unthinkable? Definitely. And to do it at the age of 33? Preposterous.
But then again, this is Taylor, the man who ran in the World Championships on a crippled foot and wept by himself before the race. The man who says, “I’m in the best shape of my life.’’
He’s just that determined. Even when there were tears.
“That is just indicative of who he is,’’ said Terrence Trammell of Taylor’s mission impossible run on a battered foot in the World Championships last summer. Trammell, who won the silver medal in the 2000 Olympics in the 110 hurdles and won the silver again in 2004, has known Taylor since they were kids.
“That’s Angelo Taylor. He’s a champion. When the lights go on and medals are on the line, he gives it 110 percent, no matter what,’’ Trammell said. “There is nothing he can’t do on the track. He has that much fire in him, that much desire.’’
Trammell has known Taylor since they were high school teammates at Southwest Dekalb High School, where they won a truckload of individual state titles and three team state titles together. They’ve been to the Olympics together and shared a million memories, but to this day Trammell shakes his head when he thinks of the 2000 Olympics.
“He won the gold medal running out of Lane 1,’’ Trammell said, his voice rising with emotion at the thought of the near impossible feat. “You just don’t do that. Most people would have called it a loss. They would have thought, ‘I have Lane 1, it’s over. I have no chance to win.’ But he didn’t. He came out with guns blazing. We all were in shock when he won. I just stood there and said: ‘He did it! He did it!’ ”
Not only did he win out of Lane 1, but Taylor went from fourth to first over the span of the final two hurdles and set the world record at that time.
“That’s who he is,” Trammell said. “If anybody could do it, it would be him. He can do anything he wants to do.’’
Taylor wants the third gold medal. Well, he doesn’t want the third gold, he lives and breathes it. It’s become a passion that has ignited him.
“It’s what drives me,’’ said Taylor, who was recently named captain of the U.S. men’s track team. “Edwin Moses is the guru of the hurdles. He’s the greatest of all time. Now, I want to make history. I want this more than anything.’’
Believe him. Taylor is the kind of man who will clear any hurdle to get what he wants.
Even Moses believes Taylor can do it. Taylor talked to Moses last week before he left the States.
“He was very encouraging,’’ Taylor said. “He gave me his blessing, and that inspired me even more. He was telling me about when he went for it the third time and didn’t get it. He wished me well and told me to go get it.’’
Taylor runs in his first heat Aug. 3, would find himself in the semifinals the next day and if all goes well, he will make his run at Moses and history at 3:45 p.m. (EST) on Monday, Aug. 6.
By 3:46 he could a living legend.
It’s a tale that could come full circle in the most emotional sense.
“When I was 6 years old, I watched my first Olympics,’’ Taylor said. “That was the 1984 Olympics, and Edwin Moses won the gold medal. I still have that memory (like it was yesterday). At that point, at being 6 years old, Edwin Moses was an inspiration to me.’’
Nobody thought Taylor, who was born in Albany, and moved north when he was young, would be a hurdler when he joined the Southwest Dekalb track team.
“He was in eighth grade when he came to us,” said Benson Elder, a former assistant track coach at Southwest Dekalb who is now the head football and head track coach at Rockdale High School. “He was so tall and lanky all he could do was the two-mile. Then as a freshman he ran the 800.’’
Even then the coaches knew Taylor was special.
“He was real young when we got him,’’ said Southwest Dekalb coach Napoleon Cobb, who has won 13 state championships. “But even then, even before he started maturing and growing, you could see he had that special quality about him, that inner drive.
“When they’re young — we got him when he was 13 — before they go through puberty and start to develop their muscles and grow, you never know what you’re going to get. But even then you could see he had that quality. People have different words for it. You can call it heart. It’s that intangible, that thing that some athletes have. And he’s got it. From Day 1, when he was little. You knew he had that intangible.
“It has always been his greatest asset,’’ he said. “We expected him to succeed because of that will to win. He always had that, and he definitely has it now. I feel great about his chances. He will run his race, and I feel he will win. I think he’s going to have his greatest Olympics of all.’’
Cobb saw Taylor grow into the world class athlete he is today. Elder and Cobb both said the turning point came when Taylor was a sophomore.
“He was running against the county champ, Kareem Williams, who was a senior and hadn’t been beaten,’’ Elder said. “We came up with a different strategy for that race, and Angelo stayed with him and then beat him the last 100 meters. That’s Angelo’s race. He is still that way today. He’s really good the first 300 meters, but that last 100 meters belong to him, When he comes down the stretch, he is a killer.’’
Elder paused and then thought about that race again.
“That race stands out in my mind,’’ Elder said. “He became the county champ as a sophomore and it changed everything. He won that race and never lost another race in high school. He became a man that day.
“That’s who he is,’’ Elder said. “He has that kind of determination to win. He’s got that inner fire in him, and that’s why he’s going for history now. He is dedicated and determined to win and works as hard as anyone to win. It’s a great story, the way he is trying to make history, beating Edwin Moses’ record and being the first to win three gold medals in the 400 hurdles. He has a chance to do something no one has ever done.’’
Cobb said he hoped everyone appreciated what Taylor is trying to accomplish and added that Taylor will be on a stage by himself if he wins.
“He will be one of a kind, the best ever,” Cobb said.
Oddly enough, Cobb coached both Taylor and Moses, who was a senior at Morehouse when Cobb coached his first year there.
“I only had Edwin one year, and he had already developed,’’ Cobb said. “I was there with Angelo from the beginning and even helped him train for his first Olympics. They’re different. They both are great athletes and have great skills. But they have different personalities. Angelo is more laid back.’’
Cobb always believed in Taylor, and when the 1996 Olympics came to Atlanta, Cobb got Taylor tickets to watch the track finals. That summer, Taylor was invited to Ohio for the U.S. National Junior Team Trials, and Cobb took him there. Taylor blew away the field in the 400, made the team and took his first steps to international competition. He won the national title two years later at Georgia Tech, and then in 2000, Taylor burst out of Lane 1 and won his first Olympic gold medal in the 400 hurdles.
He won again in China four years ago and also took home a gold as a member of the 4x400 relay team. Shortly after leaving China, he began pondering the idea of going for a third at the age of 33.
“I was at a dinner in Monaco that was honoring athletes, and some runners and coaches were there and we were all talking and they were aware of what I had done (two Olympic gold medals) and started talking to me about winning a third gold medal,” Taylor said. “That’s when I really started thinking about it.
“I’m well aware of what it means, of what it means to beat that record and surpass Edwin Moses. It means making history. That’s what I want. I want to make history.’’
The four-year journey back to the Olympics was rocky and at times gut wrenching for Taylor, who fought through injuries and pain and persevered in ways that are all but mind boggling, working out in swimming pools when his foot was so damaged that he couldn’t run on the track and pushing himself past the pain and the doubt that would have stopped most.
At one point, because he was overcompensating for the plantar fasciitis, Taylor broke a bone in his foot. Still, he trained. Finally, in February his foot began to heal, and after curtailing his workouts to handle the injury, Taylor started working out at full speed again.
“I was working out in a pool and being real cautious, and those aren’t the same as working out on a track. They weren’t hard workouts like you need to have to get ready for the Olympics,’’ he said. “Then in February I came out of it. It was definitely a big relief, a big weight off my shoulders. When you train at this level you have to go hard.
“I wondered if there would be enough time. I have a ton of confidence. It’s what’s drives me, to go out and make history, and No. 2, for my sons to look up to me and be a great role model for them and show them how to overcome adversity.’’
Taylor has twins — Isaiah and Xzaviah, who are both seven. His parents went to Albany State, and he was born in The Good Life City more than three decades ago and still has family in Albany.
“I know a lot of friends and family (in Albany) will be cheering for me and praying for me,’’ Taylor said.
Someone might have been praying during the Olympic Trials when Taylor clipped the ninth hurdle and almost saw four years of pain, struggle and brutal hard work disappear in a handful of seconds. He was leading the race when he hit the ninth hurdle and it sent him into a state of shock.
“I definitely lost my concentration. I was shocked,’’ he said. “I almost panicked. It was the one time when you just go into shock. I knew I was in first, but when I hit the hurdle I panicked a little bit, and I had to refocus and finish the race. It had never happened before, but I managed to refocus (in a matter of a split second) and finish the run.’’
He somehow managed to finish second and make the Olympic team.
“God forbid it ever happens again,” he said. “But I look at it as a good experience, because if it does then I have been through it and know what to do.’’
Taylor doesn’t just want to win gold, he wants it to shine.
“My goal is to run in the mid 46s,’’ he said. “That’s what it’s going to take to win. The world record is 46.78. My best has been 47.25.’’
Do the math: Taylor wants the record.
But he will win so much more by winning the race.
“It will stamp him as the greatest ever,’’ Trammell said. “It’s very likely it may never be done again. You don’t know, 20 years from now maybe one of his sons will grow up and do it. They have the genes.’’
The idea of being the greatest of all time isn’t lost on Taylor, who knows exactly what his legacy would be. He knows how close he is now.
“I don’t know when the adrenaline will kick in,’’ he said. “Maybe at the Olympic opening ceremony, maybe when I walk onto the track. But the adrenaline will be there. I’ve worked four years to get to this moment.’’
There have been moments, thousands of them, pushing and pulling Taylor along the way to get him to London and the brink of history — a four-year ride that could end with the greatest finish in 400 hurdles of all time.
But then again, no one pushed Taylor like Taylor.
He feels when he walks onto the track for the finals he will have one man to beat.
“I want to say I’m my toughest competition,’’ he said. “I feel if I lose, I will beat myself. I have to execute. My speed is exactly where I want it to be. My strength is exactly where I want it to be. If I run a tactical race, I will win.’’
If he does, there will be joy.
Maybe this time every one will see the tears.