Wariner looks to stay on top in 400

May 02, 2011, 10:41 a.m. (ET)

Take a look at the list of the world’s all-time best 400-meter times, and you’ll have to scroll down to No. 72 before you find the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Gary Kikaya’s 2006 time of 44.10 seconds — the first non-American result the men’s list.

It’s a level of dominance unmatched in any individual event, men’s or women’s, in the track-and-field record book. And of the 12 Americans who have contributed to that list, none have been more dominant than Michael Johnson. With 25 of the 72 fastest times recorded, including the fastest one, Johnson is the undisputed king of the quarter mile.

That position, it appears, is not safe.

To be sure, Johnson’s likely heir apparent was identified years ago when fellow Baylor alum Jeremy Wariner won the gold medal at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and followed that up with the IAAF World Championships gold medals in 2005 and 2007.

But Wariner stepped back after that. Following a coaching change, the Texan sprinter took silver medals at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the 2009 Worlds, and for those two years fell to No. 2 in the event, behind fellow American LaShawn Merritt. Merritt won the gold medal in the 400 in Beijing. He was suspended following a positive drug test but will be eligible to compete July 27, 2011, in time to run at the World Championships in South Korea.

For Wariner, those two years of being No. 2 was two years too many.

Wariner rejoined his old coach in 2009, regained his No. 1 ranking in 2010 and has reignited his quest to eventually supplant Johnson as the best quarter-miler ever.

That progress has continued. One week after a frustrating season-opening 400 against heavy wind at his home track in Waco, Texas, Wariner blew away the field Saturday at the Drake Relays in Iowa, clocking the fastest U.S. outdoor time of the year so far at 45.19 seconds.

“Every year I want to go out and be the No. 1 quarter-miler in the world, set the world record and this season is the World Championships,” said Wariner, who ran three of the four fastest times last season, including the fastest one, despite having an abbreviated racing schedule.

He’s picked up right where he left off so far this season.

After off-season surgery to repair torn meniscus in his right knee, Wariner came into 2011 rested and healthy. He promptly recorded his best season-opening 200 since 2006.

“I think Jeremy’s training is going as good this year as in any year in the past,” his longtime coach Clyde Hart said. “He’s not way ahead, he’s not behind; I think he is just where he wants to be.”

The athlete is even more optimistic.

“I’m probably about two weeks ahead of schedule training-wise from where I was two years ago,” he said of the last World Championships season. “We are excited about this season.”

Should Wariner continue to progress, perhaps even win another World Championships gold medal this August and September in South Korea, the gap between Johnson and Wariner — who are also agent and client — would continue to fade.

As far as the 400 is concerned, Wariner is already second only to Johnson, who won the event at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games along with four World Championships golds between 1993 and 1999.

At 27, Wariner has plenty of opportunity to catch up. He very well might have two more Olympic Games in his future — he would be 32 in 2016; Johnson won gold at the 2000 Games at 33 — and three World Championships before that. In addition, Wariner’s 17 times among those top 72 are far and away second to Johnson.

To truly be king of the quarter mile, though, Wariner would need to get the world record.

His personal best, set in 2007, is a mere .27 seconds behind Johnson’s 43.18. Only Johnson and Butch Reynolds have run faster than Wariner.

If there’s anybody to judge Wariner’s chances, it’s former Baylor coach Hart, who has coached Wariner, Johnson and several other top 400 runners at what became known as “Quarter Miler U.”

“The only thing they have in common is the ability to focus in on the competition and their great desire to excel,” Hart said of his two most successful men.

That said: “I think (Wariner) is by far the most capable person that’s been around since Butch Reynolds and Michael, because he has run the third fastest time,” Hart said. “If there’s somebody out there that has a shot at it, I’d say it’s Jeremy Wariner.”

Even Johnson has gone on record as saying he thinks Wariner will take his record. Prior to the 2007 World Championships, Johnson wrote in the Telegraph newspaper of London: (Wariner) understands the 400-meter race better than anyone I know. . . . Jeremy, his coach and my former coach, Clyde Hart, and I all believe he can break the record — and he will break it. I have no doubt in my mind because he has learned and matured in the event so quickly. But having done it myself, I know that it can still take time and the improvements become harder to achieve the faster you run.”

The world record is definitely on Wariner’s mind, but the Arlington, Texas, native and his coach aren’t putting any pressure on him to go get it.

“The record Michael set was a pretty good record,” Hart said. “That is one of Jeremy’s goals, but I think records come. I don’t think you set out to say ‘I am going to get Michael’s record.’”

For Wariner, the world record is no doubt a goal, but it’s not the ultimate goal.

“Having the world record is great and all, but world records can be broken,” Wariner said. “Winning a world championship or an Olympic title, they can’t take your medals away, so it’s a big honor to have a World Championship or Olympic medal.”

If he keeps it up, Wariner might soon have all three.