Johnny Gray still has the 800m Indoor & Outdoor ARs, by Elliott Denman


Johnny Gray celebrating with his athlete, Duane Solomon on his making the 2012 US Olympic team, photo by 

Johnny Gray has both the indoor and outdoor American records at 800 meters, which he has held for nearly 25 years. 

He also coaches Duane Solomon, one of the few who could break those records. In this piece, Elliott Denman asks Johnny why he believes that his records still remain. 

 "American runners have to be more aggressive.

 "American coaches have to teach their runners to be more aggressive.

  "That's the basic answer."

 The question, of course, as posed to Johnny Gray, is this:
 "Your American indoor 800-meter record (1:45.00 at Sindelfingen, Germany, March 8, 1992) has been in the books for nearly 23 years.

  "Your American outdoor 800 record (1:42.60 at Koblenz, Germany, August 28, 1985) will (if not bettered) be 30 years old this summer.

  "So, why Johnny , why?"

   It's a mark of the man as much as the mark of his records.

    In his magnificent and enduring  - and often under-appreciated - Hall of Fame middle-distance racing career, that began as a kid at Los Angeles's Crenshaw High School,  continued at Santa Monica College and at Arizona State University, and as a member of the Santa Monica Track Club and four USA Olympic teams, Johnny Gray blazed a trail that no other American 800 man has been able to match or even approach.

  The archives show that, after running 1:51.1 as a Crenshaw senior in 1978, he first broke 1:50 with a 1:49.39 in 1979, and still ran a 1:48.81 in his early 40s.

   How impressive is that? 

   Facts are facts. The USA hasn't produced an Olympic 800-meter champion since Bowling Green's Dave Wottle at Munich in 1972. And we've had just three medalists, Notre Dame's Rick Wohlhuter in 1976, Eastern Michigan's Earl Jones in 1984, and Gray himself in 1992 - all at bronze - in the years since.

    So why aren't Americans learning from the lessons Johnny Gray taught us all those glory-filled, sizzling-stats-filled years on the global circuit?

    "It's no secret," Gray told this interviewer in a recent visit to New York's New Balance Armory Track Center, for the Armory Collegiate Meet at the state-of-the-art facility at 168th Street and Fort Washington Avenue.

    "It was all out there for everybody to see.  But not too many people were
watching, I guess."

    After all his brilliant years as a racer - nearly a quarter-century of them - Gray now coaches the middle distance and cross country runners at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.  They're all female - UCF, like too many others around the nation, has gone the gender-equity route and does not field a men's team.  And, just as you'd expect, his UCF ladies are making major strides in the sport.  Rosie Chamberlain, at 2:09.96, is the current UCF 800-meter leader.

    Once the college campaign is over, Gray switches his coaching emphasis to the small group of post-graduate runners he mentors through their own careers on the national and global circuits.

   Merrill McGee had been Gray's own coach through his greatest years.

 Foremost Gray pupil these days is Duane Solomon, who like his coach, is approaching his best racing years in relative "middle age" - having reached 30 three days after Christmas.

   Next to Gray's three top outdoor performances - the 1:42.60, the 1:42.65 at Zurich in 1988 and the 1:42.80 at New Orleans in 1992,  Solomon owns the next-best mark by an American.

   That, of course, was the 1:42.82 he ran for fourth place in the 2012 London Olympic Games final, a race that ranks as "the greatest ever" in world 800 history.

  As 80,000-plus cheered him on at London Olympic Stadium, Kenya's David Rudisha became the first man ever to "break 1:41" with his gold-medal, 1:40.91 race for the ages.

   And tracking his incredible footsteps were Botswana's Nijel Amos (1:41.73 for the silver), Kenya's Timothy Kitum (1:42.53 for the bronze), USA's Solomon (1:42.82 in fourth) and  Nick Symmonds (1:42.95 in fifth), Ethiopia's Mohammed Amen (sixth in 1:43.20), Sudan's Abubaker Kaki (seventh in 1:43.32) and Great Britain's Andrew Osagie (eighth in  1:43.77.)

   The August 9, 2012 bottom line:  All eight finalists were (far) faster than the winners at the three previous Olympic finals - Kenya's Wilfred Bungei (1:44.65 in 2008), Russia's Yuriy Borzakovskiy (1:44.45 in 2004) and Germany's Nils Schumann (1:45.08 in 2000.)

   Fact is, you had to go back to the previous century's Olympic results to see anything even remotely close to those London 2012 numbers  - the 1:42.58 wins by Norway's Verbjorn Rodal at Atlanta in 1996, and the 1:43.66 victory by William Tanui of Kenya at Barcelona in 1992, where Gray ran third in 1:43.97.

   Basically stated, Rudisha "turned back the clock" and rewrote the record book by "going for it" from the gun.  He turned what was once considered a middle distance race into a two-lap sprint.

    He "got out" in 23.30 seconds for the first 200, settled down to a 25.98 second half-lap  (to reach midway in 49.28), picked it up through 600 in 1:14.30 (25.02 third 200) and "brought it home" with a 23.61 dash to a 1:40.91 finish.

   "That's the way he trained and that's what he knew he had to do," said Gray.

   "And he did just that.

  "As I said, he had to be aggressive, and he was aggressive."

  Soon as he caught his breath in London, and met the media, Rudisha explained, "I had no doubt about winning.  The weather was beautiful.  There was nothing to hold me back. I decided to go for it."

   As one British writer, Andy Ball, described the epic scene, "Rudisha pulled the field around behind him like a speedboat leading seven water-skiers."

  Seven of those eight London finalists ran the fastest 800s of their lives.  Kaki, seventh in 1:43.32 but owning a 1:42.23 PR two years earlier, was the lone exception.

   It was a show of shows for the man who'd made these London Olympic Games possible - Lord Sebastian Coe himself.

  If these were indeed "Seb's Games," as some called them, the Lord's will was done. His 1:41.73 had endured as the world record from 1981 to 1997, when Wilson Kipketer, the Kenya-born Dane, chopped it down to 1:41.24 and then 1:41.11.

  Thirteen years later, Rudisha appeared on the scene to run 1:41.09 and then 1:41.01 in  2010, before the epic 1:40.91 in London.

   So that's where we stand as the 2015 indoor season heads for home and the world's finest gear up for the great outdoors, just ahead.

  Gray, as he continually emphasizes, knows that 800 meters is no event for the timid. It's got to be "taken out."  Anyone "sitting and waiting," he more-than-strongly feels, is likely to sit out any future invitations to positions on the podium.

   Yes, "take it out" and learn to "maintain."   Think like a sprinter and move out from the gun.  You're not always going to win that way - a lesson Johnny Gray often learned - but it's  going to give you your best possible shot at it.


   "Who needs them?" asks Gray.  "Be your own."

    That's the route the Gray-tutored Duane Solomon is determined to go. 

    And Gray would be mightily pleased to see Solomon - sooner than later - take down his American-outdoor-record 1:42.60.

    "If anybody's going to do it, it's going to be Duane Solomon," declared Gray.

    Not long after this conversation, a young man named Dylan Capwell was introduced  to Gray, trackside at the Armory.

    Now here's a most-promising youngster, a sophomore at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. who'd just run off with top honors in the Armory Collegiate meet 800 by a huge margin with his 1:49.96 win.

   University of Toronto's Sacha Smart was a distant second in 1:51.36.

   Gray was happy to deliver words of his wisdom to this obvious
prospect - Capwell won't be 20 until the first of this July.

   (He was born 59 days before Gray ran his U.S. outdoor record.)

   The words "be aggressive" were used several times.

   Capwell, along with his specialty coach, Chris Tarello, on Monmouth head
coach Joe Compagni's well-versed staff, must have been taking careful notes.

   Two weeks later, Capwell and the Monmouth Hawks' team returned to the Armory for the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference Championships, and the message obviously rang home.

   Capwell went on to run the most "aggressive" 800 of his life.

   Even with no other MAAC runner ready to offer a serious challenge,
Capwell "took it out" through a 25-flat 200 and 50.9 400 (25.9 second 200) and kept pouring it on to reach 600 in 1:17.7 (with a 26.8 third 200.)  With no one remotely close - Jonathan Jackson of Rider was destined to finish second in 1:50.53 - Capwell  finally showed some fatigue in a 29.1 fourth 200 for a 1:46.82 completion.

    And when that time flashed on the Armory scoreboard, the stats-keepers went to work.

   For beginners, the 1:46.82 was a MAAC record - no one had ever broken 1:50 in this meet.

   It was also a 2015 season best on the Armory 200-meter oval. 

   Most tellingly, it was the fastest 800 run by an American on a track of any size, this winter (although three other NCAA collegians, all of them internationals, have run faster on over-size ovals.)

  Told of Capwell's eye-opening performance, Gray (speaking by phone from Orlando) asked, "Did he really?"

   Then he was given the "splits," and he really perked up.

     "I liked the way he ran it," said Gray. " I like the way he took it out.  I like that young man's future."

   "I'm going to be rooting for that kid.

    "I think he knows how to do it.

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