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ALVIN HARRISON // What a strange trip it's been for Harrison

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Sometimes, it doesn't matter if the view is a smooth lane or a hard road. If Alvin Harrison has learned nothing else, he has learned that much of life is the way you choose to look at it.

Take the Olympics. You can look at the odds in front of Harrison, or you can look at the odds he has beaten. You can see Harrison as the third man in a two-man race between the world champion, Michael Johnson, and the world record-holder, Butch Reynolds. Or you can see him as the fastest-improving sprinter in America, someone who could surprise the world before it knows he's there.

That's the thing about Harrison. You can look at the mountain in front of him, or you can look at the hill he survived. You can look at him as a long shot in the 400 meters, or you can look at him as a man who already has won.

He is America's unlikeliest Olympian, a man who not only came from nowhere but had no place to live.

Two years ago, Harrison was homeless and broke, sleeping in the back seat of a black 1987 Ford Mustang on a hill overlooking Monterey Bay. At the time, his ambitions had less to do with medals than they did with meals, and his goal was not the time of his arrival but the question of his survival.

Oh, every now and then, he and his twin brother, Calvin, would talk about track, and how fast they had run, and the rewards they might win if they returned, but such talk sounded as hollow and wishful as the rap record the two talked of recording, too. How many dreams are delivered to men without mailboxes?

And you know what? Even that, Harrison manages to look at with a smile.

"Everyone talks about us living in the car as something horrible," Harrison said. "But it wasn't as bad as people think. We had some of the best times we've had, just hanging out. There weren't any pressures. We woke up in the morning with the sun warming our bodies, with the bay below us. It was beautiful."

Many might not see it that way. For the longest time, Alvin and Calvin were like driftwood, moving along but bound for nowhere. On their own since their junior year in high school, they bounced from one friend's home to another's until the invitations ran out and there was no place to go but the car.

If you are wondering, this is not exactly the preferred route to the Olympics.

"They say humility before honor," Alvin Harrison said. "It was hard, but it made me strong."

He always had been fast, and his brother always had been faster. That was true in Orlando, where they grew up. It was true in Salinas, Calif., where their father took them their freshman year. But when their grandmother became sick their junior year, the family moved back to Orlando. A couple of months later, Alvin and Calvin decided they could ease the financial pressure on their father _ a construction worker _ if they moved back to California.

Alvin ran the 100 and 200. The 400 belonged to Calvin, who was the national high school track athlete of the year as a senior. They enrolled in Hartnell Junior College, but dropped out after a year.

They went from job to job, from staying with one friend or another. Eventually, they ran out of both. Seven places over two years. After a while, they found themselves in the predicament of having nothing but a car and no place to go.

Calvin slept in the front, because it was his car. Alvin slept in the back. They ate fast-food on the good days, crackers on the bad. Some nights, a policeman would rap on the window and tell them to move along. Usually, they found themselves in the country, on a hill overlooking Monterey Bay. The brothers would talk and laugh and dream, and then they would sleep.

Now, he sleeps on fresh linen in fine hotels. Now, Alvin Harrison is an Olympian, and with that comes the grand knowledge that hotels, unlike Mustangs, have room service. This is what they mean by life in the fast lane.

Harrison laughs. No big deal, he says. He looks at his time in the car the way a soldier looks at basic training.

"I wouldn't change any of it, even if I could," Harrison said. "Everything went the way it was supposed to go. Times like that are when you found out what holds the most value, and that's the human soul. The spirit. It's something we had to go through, or I wouldn't appreciate things."

He appreciates the aimlessness. He appreciates the bad jobs, putting soda machines together, even the one where he handled hazardous materials for a chemical company.

But he knew he was on a dead-end road. One day, he decided he'd had enough. He would return to the track.

Actually, Calvin had the idea first, and Alvin followed. They returned to Hartnell in September and renewed their training. After that, everything went fast especially the Harrisons.

This is not supposed to happen. You are not supposed to sleep with your knees pressed against the back of the front seat for months, then hop onto a track and find yourself in the Olympics a year later. But as the Harrisons ran under Gary Shaw, who copied much of Clyde Hart's workout designed for Michael Johnson, the seconds began to melt off their times.

Alvin Harrison had run fewer than 10 meets when he entered the track trials in Atlanta a month ago. Yet, he made the team, running the eighth-fastest time in history. Calvin was eliminated by .007 of a second.

There are those who might suggest what Harrison earned was the right to chase Johnson and Reynolds in the 400, that the best he can hope for is the bronze. After all, this is supposed to be Johnson's Olympics, and this is supposed to be Reynolds' redemption. How can a newcomer compete with that?

Again, Harrison does not seem daunted.

"I enjoy running against those two," he said. "I don't think the odds. I just enjoy running."

But does he think about winning?

"Everyone has the Olympic dream," he said. "Bowing in front of the crowd. Hearing the roar. Standing on the platform. Everyone thinks about that."

Maybe it happens this Olympics. Maybe next. He is 22, and he has time. Better than that, he finally has direction. He talks about running as long as he can. And yes, he talks about getting into a studio with his twin brother and recording that rap album they talked about during those long nights in the Mustang.

"It's coming out, you watch," he said. "We're called Double Exposure. We could be a hit."

Someday, maybe, they even could go gold. When a guy is going somewhere fast, all things seem possible.

Meet the athlete

BORN: Jan. 20, 1974, Orlando.

RESIDES: Salinas, Calif.

HEIGHT: 6-2. WEIGHT: 175.

SCHOOL: Hartnell Junior College, Modesto, Calif.

PERSONAL BESTS: Gold medalist, 1993 junior Pan Ams. Third at Olympic trials, achieving personal bests in all four qualifying rounds.