Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Sports

Calvin Smith II follows in father's footsteps

DES MOINES, Iowa — In grade school, teachers always asked him to bring his father in for show and tell. At Tampa's Freedom High, track coaches wanted him to invite his dad to practice.

For Calvin Smith II, sharing the same name and being the son of Calvin Smith carries a lot of weight. It's not easy following in the footsteps of a former world record holder, world champion, Olympic medalist and Hall of Famer.

That's why, at an early age, the son decided he wasn't going to be a 100-meter sprinter like his father, but rather he would make a name for himself in the 400 and stand out on his own merits.

One thing's for sure: He certainly inherited his father's speed, finishing with the 10th-fastest 400 time (45.69 seconds) in the semifinals Saturday at the U.S. championships in Des Moines, Iowa. He just missed qualifying for the final in his heat by 0.02 seconds.

Then again, he did grow up at the track, watching one of the fastest men in the world. Just like his father, he works hard at his craft.

"All my friends used to be like, 'It's already in your blood to run fast. You don't have to even practice,' " Smith said.

And just like his father, Smith prefers to blend in, rather than be the center of attention. That is, until he steps on the track.

"I like to be in the background. People notice me but don't really notice me," said Smith, who lives in Gainesville where he starred at UF, while his father resides in Tampa. "When I win a race, they're like, 'Oh, okay, who's that?' "

That, of course, is the sprinter with the famous father, a name the son can't hide from. He insists that growing up with a name synonymous with speed wasn't a burden. Well, maybe when he was running for the Gators and the announcers would introduce him.

"They would be like, 'That's the son of Calvin Smith on the track,' " the 25-year-old recounted. "Put the spotlight right on me. It's like, 'Zoom, now I've got to win the race.' But that's about all the pressure."

The two are tight. Before every competition, they talk strategy.

"I've always looked up to him," the son said. "He's a big factor in my life."

The elder Smith, 52, maintains it was his idea that his son try the 400. His son was a good 100 sprinter, but after seeing him race just once around the oval, the father was convinced the son could be elite in the 400.

"I said, 'Okay, the 400 is your event, you've got the speed and you're a hard worker; the 400 is great for you,' " he said. "But if you ask him today, he'll say he's a sprinter."

Over the years, the son has gone back and watched quite a few of his father's races. His favorite? Easy, the world record performance.

On July 3, 1983, fresh off a grueling season at the University of Alabama, Smith Sr. headed to Colorado Springs, Colo., for a meet. He took a few days off to rest his legs before the race and wasn't expecting to be very fast.

Refreshed, he launched out of the blocks and glided down the track, knowing he ran well, but now sure how well.

And then it flashed: 9.93 seconds, breaking Jim Hines' mark that had stood for nearly 15 years.

"I couldn't believe it," Smith Sr. said. "I just couldn't believe it."

Ask him about the 100 race at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and his voice grows lower. It remains a sensitive subject.

In the ESPN documentary on the race, 9.79, the plot line focuses on the final and its colorful characters: from Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis to Linford Christie, former Gator Dennis Mitchell, Robson Da Silva, Smith, Ray Stewart and Desai Williams.

That day, Smith Sr. finished fourth behind Johnson, Lewis and Christie. Later, Smith was bumped up to bronze after Johnson was disqualified for failing a drug test.

"What can you do?" Smith Sr. said. "In many cases, the sport was condoning the athletes taking drugs. Ben was typical of what was going on in the sport there."

Smith Sr.'s style helped inspire another generation of sprinters, including Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay.

"He's one of the most underrated 100-meter sprinters," Gatlin said. "A fierce competitor from what I know and from what I've watched."

The same can be said of his son. Smith attended Florida, where he became a 16-time All-American.

"I had to be a Gator fan for a while. Now that was hard," said his dad, a loyal Alabama supporter. "I didn't push him to run. He always wanted to run and wanted to follow in my footsteps to be a great athlete."

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