By DAVE SCHEIBER | Times Staff Writer
LAKE BUENA VISTA
John Capel strides through his final sprint of another steamy practice, powered by a renewed sense of purpose and an Olympic dream that had seemingly gone up in smoke. "That's excellent, John, just like that, chin up," his coach, U.S. Track Coaches Association Hall of Famer Brooks Johnson, called out at Disney's Wide World of Sports on Monday. In 2003 Capel was the world champion in the 200 meters. In 2006 the former Hernando High track and football star and Florida Gator sprinting champion was banished from the sport for two years because of a marijuana suspension.
Last year he was operating a forklift, picking up concrete blocks and finishing his day covered with dust at Flagstone Pavers in his native Brooksville.
Now he is back to blasting out of the blocks and leaving others in the dust. At the relatively advanced age, for track, of 29, Capel has a chance to qualify for the Beijing Games in the 100 and 200 meters at the U.S. track and field trials, which begin today in Eugene, Ore.
The top three finishers in each event make the Olympic team.
It is a far cry from two years ago, when his prospects were clouded by that positive test for pot.
Capel had tested positive for the drug in 2004, and that cost him a spot on the Olympic team in Athens. His second infraction resulted in a two-year suspension that ended in March.
It was the latest in a series of setbacks. Capel had also made unsuccessful attempts to latch onto an NFL team after leaving Florida early. But the most memorable, and painful, occurred at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Capel was favored to win the 200. But he moved in the starting blocks just before the gun went off, then hesitated, sure he would be called for a false start.
No call came. And Brooksville's hometown hero finished dead last and devastated.
Today, Capel has a new outlook. Johnson has helped him enormously with new techniques and insights. "And he's gotten me to the point where I've finally let my bad start in the 2000 Olympics go," Capel said.
What's more, he has been clean in more than 20 drug tests.
"I'm not worried about what the media has to say or what people say," he asserted. "Yes, I smoked some pot. What I did was wrong. And I have to live with that. But people change in life, and if you don't change, that's your mistake. I think I've finally become adult enough to do change what I do."
His change was spurred by children. "There were a lot of young kids in Brooksville that I never expected were watching me do what I do," he said. "They would come up to me and ask when I was going to run again. It started getting to me — like, your mistakes don't only affect you. If you're a role model, it affects everybody."
He also thought about his children with wife Sandy: Janya, 7, Serenity, 4, and John Jr., 1. "Janya read about me when I was getting in trouble. She understands all too well," he said.
The turning point came in 2007, when Capel volunteered to help coach football at his old high school. He was told that he couldn't because he would be a bad influence on the players.
"I was like, 'Wow, I have about every record there,' and I wasn't allowed to go on campus now," he said. "Oh, man, that hit home."
Capel was savoring time with his wife and kids, and had gotten used to the idea of staying at Flagstone Pavers. "I was doing fine; $32,000 a year in Brooksville is great money," he said.
But Florida track coach Mike Holloway called one day and told Capel he needed to be running again. Holloway called Johnson, and soon Capel contacted him.
"He did not give me an easy word," Capel recalled. "Then I talked to my wife, and she told me it would take a lot more dedication, due to the things that had happened, because of how people will look at you."
Capel accepted the challenge and joined Johnson at Disney in October. "It's the best thing that could have happened," he said.
Despite a two-year absence from competition, Capel is one of the world's top 100-meter sprinters. He has clocked a 200 practice time of 19.97 seconds, close to his personal best of 19.85.
"And I've been sitting on my butt, working in cement, breathing in dust," he said.
Capel would like nothing more than to surprise some people, starting with the 100-meter Olympic trials Saturday . (The 200 begins July 4.) Johnson is impressed with his pupil's talent and desire.
"The longest distance John is going to have to cover is between his left earlobe and his right earlobe," Johnson said. "He's ready to cover the 100 meters; he's ready to do the 200 meters. It's hard to get your swagger back after being out two years.
"If he gets his swagger back, he's on the team and on his way."
Dave Scheiber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8541.