Lennox Miller first saw his little girl run fast-really fast-during an eighth-grade field day. Oh, he already knew she was quick. He had seen that in little kids' soccer games and when she ran down the street in front of the family's home in the San Gabriel foothills north of downtown Pasadena. But this was different. The race started, and Inger Miller just ran away from the others, blurring across the green lawn of the Westridge Girls School with pigtails flying behind her like braided vapor trails. "The picture is so clear in my mind," Lennox says. "She separated herself from all the other girls. Her stride rate was just outstanding." Understand, the man was no easy sell. Lennox Miller won two Olympic 100-meter medals while competing for Jamaica, where sprinting is not merely a sport, but a passion. As a father he would not be easily impressed by a little kid with good wheels. Yet after watching Inger race that day, he told friends back home in the Caribbean, "My daughter is going to be a great runner. If she wants to, she's going to go far."
Fifteen years later, at age 28, Inger Miller is among the best sprinters in the world. Last summer she won the 200 meters at the world championships in Seville, and only three women in history have run faster times for both the 100 and the 200. She is almost certain to make her second Olympic team at the U.S. track and field trials starting July 14 in Sacramento, and to challenge for gold medals in three events (the 100, 200 and 4 x 100 relay) in Sydney in September.
She has made her father a prophet: The girl is a great runner. But the question that remains is how far she will go. Olympic stars are chosen long before the Games begin. They are anointed, packaged and positioned for wealth and fame on the assumption that they will win gold medals. Perhaps no female athlete in history has been more aggressively marketed than the expected star of the 2000 Games, Miller's rival, Marion Jones. NBC president Dick Ebersol has said that his network will cover Jones's attempt to win an unprecedented five track and field gold medals "like a miniseries." But Miller is not impressed. She will bring a serious Marion Jones jones to the trials and, she hopes, to Sydney. "It shouldn't be as if no one else is even competing in her races," says Miller. "It's not like Marion Jones is Superwoman and everyone else is poultry."
Miller is sitting on a concrete wall that abuts the running track at UCLA, wearing wraparound shades. "Hey, all the publicity that [Jones] brings to the sport is great for all of us, but people bring her name up to me, and here's what I think: I'm the best sprinter in the world. I know I'm going to win. The media want to have a story, and they've found her. Well, it will make for an even better story when those five gold medals don't come to be." Miller's manager at Los Angelesbased HSI, Emanuel Hudson, puts it another way: "If Dick Ebersol wants to make Marion Jones a miniseries, that's his gamble. Just think of Inger Miller as one of those characters who throws a twist into the plot in the second night."
Many women chase Jones, but it is Miller who is closest, and for whom the pursuit is most personal. It was Miller who, in 1990 as a senior at Muir High in Pasadena, beat Jones, then a freshman at Rio Mesa in Oxnard, in both the 100 and 200 meters at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational high school meet in Southern California and was told by a meet official, "It's a good thing you beat her now, because I don't think you'll ever beat her again." (Miller hasn't, but recalling her defeat of Jones at Arcadia, she says, "She wasn't very cordial after getting beat by me.") It also was Miller whose sensational performance last year at the world championships in Seville was marked by a Jones-related asterisk. There, Miller started talking smack and hasn't stopped since.
She lowered her personal record in the 100 from 10.96 to 10.86 in the second round of the worlds and then to 10.79 in the final, but still lost by several meters to Jones, who ran 10.70. Even so, Miller then sat next to Jones at the press conference in Estadio Olímpico and said, "It's not a one-woman show anymore." Five days later, with Jones sidelined by a back injury that would end her season, Miller dropped her 200-meter best from 22.10 to 21.77, a stunning improvement that sent Miller bounding and high-stepping in celebration.
"After the 100 it was all Marion, Marion, Marion," said Miller. "Then she gets hurt, and people are saying, Oh well, I guess Inger Miller will win now.' Well, Inger Miller would have won the race even if she was there." (Note: It is rare to hear Miller use Jones's name, just as it is rare to hear Jones use any of her pursuers' names; usually Jones keeps them tented under the collective "my competitors.") Three years of brilliant performances make Jones the 100- and 200-meter favorite at the trials, especially with Miller-who has not looked sharp in recent European races-saying recently that she is running merely to make the team in Sacramento, with victory in Sydney as her larger goal. Miller, however, remains a formidable opponent who is on a steep learning curve. Moreover, her story isn't half bad.
In the autumn of 1998, Miller returned home to Los Angeles from the European summer circuit with a career that seemed stalled, athletically and financially. At the Atlanta Games in '96, at age 24, she had finished fourth in the 200 and won a gold medal on the U.S. 4 x 100 relay team. She seemed primed for a long and prosperous career. Yet in the next two years, coached by her father and managed by her godfather, 1976 Olympic 200-meter gold medalist Donald Quarrie, she got no faster. "I was at a crossroads," Miller says. "I needed to make a change in management."
Miller's relationship with Quarrie had grown sour, the two of them arguing over everything from marketing strategy to Miller's meet appearance fees. "It was strictly business," says Miller of firing Quarrie. Yet it could not help but be painful. As fellow sprinting heroes from Jamaica, Quarrie and Lennox Miller had been friends for more than three decades, and Inger Miller was among Quarrie's most successful clients. "Inger had outgrown Don, and he simply did not realize it, but the decision caused her a great deal of tension," says Inger's mother, Avril, a flight attendant with TWA for the past 33 years. "She agonized over it. She cried over it. And then Don looked at it as if Inger had deserted him." Quarrie remains bitter. "She made a decision, and that's that," he says. "I won't say anything about it."
Inger interviewed several agents before settling on Hudson, the flamboyant lawyer who, with sprint coach and former U.S. Olympian John Smith, formed HSI, a management company that includes many athletes trained by Smith, among them 100-meter world-record holder Maurice Greene and 1996 Olympic double bronze medalist Ato Boldon of Trinidad. Hudson strongly suggested that Miller not only be represented by HSI but also be coached by Smith, rather than by her father, now a dentist, who could work with Inger only on his lunch break. "Nothing against Inger's father," says Hudson, "but John Smith is a coach 24/7, and that's what Inger needed to fulfill her potential."
In fact, Inger had considered changing coaches, but if firing Quarrie was painful, this would cut even deeper. The Millers were a tight, loving family, and Lennox a proud father with a terrific track pedigree. At the University of Southern California he anchored a world-record-breaking 4 x 110-yard relay team that included O.J. Simpson. While in college he won the 100-meter silver medal behind U.S. runner Jim Hines at the 1968 Mexico City Games, and four years later, on a two-week break from USC dental school, he took the bronze behind Valery Borzov of the Soviet Union and Robert Taylor of the U.S. in Munich. "Quiet guy, but one tough competitor-spared no one," says Smith, who was a freshman at UCLA when Miller was a senior at USC.
Lennox Miller remains quiet, speaking softly with the dying remnants of a Caribbean lilt. He met his wife while they were in high school in Jamaica. He came to the U.S. to run in college; she went to work for TWA. They raised two girls, Inger (named for '60s Swedish actress Inger Stevens) and Heather, now 24, with creativity and passion. Surely the Miller girls were the only ones on their block who took long weekends with their parents in Rome, Milan, Madrid and Cairo, a fringe benefit of Avril's job. "It was always fun to come back to school and tell the teacher what we did over the weekend," says Inger.
Lennox did not coach Inger until long after she finished at USC, beginning in the autumn of 1995. They were always alone on the track, sharing a sport and eventually the distinction of being the only father and daughter to have won Olympic track and field medals. Yet three years later, Lennox knew it was time to let go. At Hudson's urging, Inger arranged a one-week trial with Smith as her coach, and Lennox went to UCLA every day to watch her train. They would walk to the car together, and, ultimately, both decided it was best for Inger to leave her father to train with Smith. "I didn't have any ego to feed," says Lennox. "I couldn't take Inger any further without some drastic change in my life, like closing my dental practice and traveling with her. It was best that she get the benefit of what John and HSI could offer."
He is sitting in an armchair in his living room on a cool evening in the foothills. The methods that took him to two medals are different from those Smith has taught Inger, and Lennox doesn't agree with all of them, but he stays quiet. "I'm thrilled to see Inger reach her potential," he says. "I'm not sad that I am no longer her coach. But I do miss the time that I used to spend interacting with my daughter." It took Inger nearly a year to grasp the subtleties of Smith's teachings-the low, driving start, the open hands, the mental imagery. ("Think of a string pulling you horizontally down the track, not pulling you upward," he would tell her.) She struggled through much of last summer. On Aug. 7, just 13 days before the worlds began, she ran a horrible 11.13 for the 100 in London, losing to Jones by several meters. Miller burst into tears on the track.
Less than a week later, during a training session in Seville, the lightbulb went on for Miller. She trounced Greene and teammate Jon Drummond in a series of starts. "All summer it's not clicking for me," she says. "All of sudden there it is. I was like, Oh my god, I'm ready. I feel it." Drummond and Greene complained to Smith that Miller was beating them by jumping the gun. "She's jumping, all right," Smith taunted them. "She's jumping your ass."
Within a week she was one of the fastest women in history. Only world-record holder Florence Griffith Joyner, Merlene Ottey of Jamaica and Jones have run faster than 10.79 for 100 meters and 21.77 for 200. "It's always been there with Inger-she's always been dangerous-but last year she finally put it together," says U.S. sprinter Carlette Guidry. As for beating Jones, Miller has work to do in the 100 (in which Jones has 11 clockings faster than Miller's personal best). In the 200 Jones's nonaltitude PR is 21.76, only one hundredth of a second faster than Miller's. That should be a terrific race.
The last year of Miller's life has made her tougher and more focused. In April, Miller went to the Penn Relays and refused to concede any ground to her rival. After running the third leg to Jones's anchor on a 4 x 100-meter relay, she refused to run with Jones on a 4 x 200 team. Part of the reason was that Miller was overtrained and didn't need another race; but also Miller felt that as the world 200 champion, she, not Jones, should anchor a 4 x 200. It was a bold piece of turf-staking that was meant to send a message to Jones.
Miller's growing self-confidence has come from having had the strength to leave her father. Mostly, though, her recent growth has come from helping her boyfriend, HSI hurdler Larry Wade, endure a horrific spring. Wade, the No. 3ranked 110-meter hurdler in the world a year ago, was involved in an Easter Sunday car accident near his home in Canoga Park, Calif. Initially he was treated for only a scalp wound that required 15 staples, but his condition mysteriously deteriorated for more than two weeks. Finally, on the morning of May 10, after Wade had endured another night of fever, headaches and cold sweats, Miller demanded that he return to the hospital. Wade was found to have suffered a chest injury (possibly from his car's air bag) that had left his heart surrounded by fluid and swollen to twice its normal size. Doctors performed emergency surgery that evening, after telling Wade that he could have died had Miller not dragged him in. Wade is now pushing himself toward a comeback appearance at the U.S. trials, but for the weeks following his surgery, Miller-along with his parents and Greene-tended to him. Miller cooked one meal for Wade before her training and another afterward, helping nurse him back to health. "At times she was a one-woman show for me," says Wade.
On the track Miller's HSI brethren saw something fresh. "She moved ahead," said Boldon in early June. "She's been focused like I've never seen, and it's obvious that what happened to Larry has a lot to do with it. Inger is running for two people every day." Miller stood one recent afternoon in the living room of her pink stucco home in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. It is an unfurnished room, emblematic of a peripatetic life in track, yet the walls and shelving are covered with pictures of her life and family. In one print Miller is running in a kids' track meet, sneakers kicking up brown dirt, runners in her wake. "I know who I am," she says, bouncing words off the hardwood flooring in a sharp echo. "I know what I can accomplish." -From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED