Huffins Holds On To Get His Decathlon Bronze Medal The American Was In First Place Going To The 1,500. He Knew He Would Need That Lead To Win A Medal.

Posted: September 29, 2000

SYDNEY — Chris Huffins had to do what he had never done before. When he crossed the finish line after 1,500 meters, a race he used to hate, he knew that he had done it.

"You know when you're a kid playing basketball by yourself?" Huffins said after winning the bronze medal in the Olympic decathlon last night. "And you imagine it's the championship game, and time is running out? And you put up a shot and it goes in and you won the championship? It was a moment just like that."

Huffins went into the second day of the decathlon with the lead. A poor showing in the pole vault allowed the others to close the gap. Going into the last of the 10 events, that dreaded 1,500 meters, Huffins knew that to win a medal he would have to run it faster than he ever had.

And he did, running it in 4 minutes, 38.71 seconds - a full 13 seconds better than his previous personal record.

"That's the event that has been my Waterloo so many times," Huffins said. "For it to all come down to that, and for me to dig deep down into my soul and come up with that kind of performance, that is my Olympic moment, now and forever.

"I think I probably stamped myself a place in history. It's probably going to be just above the footnotes, but it's a place."

The Brooklyn-born Huffins began competing in decathlon while nursing an injury at the University of California. He was sitting in the stands one day watching the Cal decathletes practice and boasted he could do better. The coach challenged him to prove it, and he has been a decathlete ever since.

Huffins might have won the silver if a foul against gold medalist Erki Nool of Estonia hadn't been overturned in the discus portion of the competition.

"I'm not resentful," Huffins said. "My coaches saw a camera angle that proved he did not foul. I would hate to have him get cheated out of a gold medal if he didn't foul. He's a good friend. I love him to death."

Huffins said the elite decathletes were like a "strange little family" because of the nature of their sport.

"Unlike the sprinters, we spend a lot of time together," Huffins said. "We know each other's families, each other's kids."

A new member of the "family," American Tom Pappas, placed fifth.

"That's great for a 24-year-old guy," Huffins said. "I think America is making a comeback [in the decathlon]."

Though Huffins had the lead going into the 1,500 meters, he didn't see slipping two places as a bad thing.

"My gun is empty," Huffins said. "I shot all my bullets."

Smart risk. Marla Runyan didn't like the way she ran in the preliminary round of the women's 1,500 meters. So she changed her strategy for last night's semifinal.

"I decided to get out in front early and increase the pace," Runyan said. "That way, if I didn't finish in the top five, at least the heat might be faster and I would have a chance to qualify."

It worked. The top five runners in each semifinal qualify, along with the next two fastest runners. Runyan, who is legally blind, was trying to hang on to her lead as long as possible.

"I could tell when someone passed me," Runyan said. "I felt one, two, three, four go by. Then at the very end, I felt another one and I thought, oh, no, I'm in sixth place."

One of the runners who went by was American Suzy Favor Hamilton, who finished second in the heat and will run in tomorrow's final.

Runyan was talking to a French TV reporter as the second heat was run. The reporter told her the times. Runyan's sixth-place time in her heat was faster than the winner of the second heat. She was in.

"I've been very fortunate," Runyan said. "I seem to keep on getting in with the last spot."

So there. Susanthika Jayasinghe was banned three years ago after testing positive for steroids. She appealed the ban, saying that Sri Lankan officials had sabotaged her because she had spurned their sexual advances. She won the appeal, but her training funding was cut and she was forced to move to Los Angeles to train.

Last night, Jayasinghe won the bronze medal in the 200 dash, finishing two spots behind Marion Jones.

"Now they are crying [in Sri Lanka]," Jayasinghe said. "For years, they gave me troubles, troubles, troubles. When I go back Oct. 2 with a bronze medal, they will be sad."

Disappointed. The two Americans in the wheelchair events, which are exhibitions in these Olympics, were disappointed with their finishes.

Cheri Becerra finished fifth in the women's 800-meter race. Scot Hollonbeck was sixth among the men in the 1,500-meter event.

"I'm disappointed, of course," Becerra said. "I really wanted to win. I got caught in a bad spot and couldn't come around. It happens."

"I was scared there might be a crash," Hollonbeck said. "There were a lot of aggressive racers. It was a battle the whole time. I think I've got a better race in me. I hope to make the final of the Paralympics [in Sydney] and have a chance to move up a few notches."

Moving on. Though 100-meter gold medalist Maurice Greene reportedly was unhappy with the makeup of the 4x100 relay team - coach John Chaplin didn't include Greene's pal Curtis Johnson - he seemed downright cheery after winning this morning's first-round heat.

Greene said he had planned to anchor every round but had volunteered to sit out to make sure all six runners on the team got a medal.

"You want to make sure every guy gets a gold medal to bring home to his mother, to his hometown, to the U.S.A.," he said.

Phil Sheridan's e-mail address is psheridan@phillynews.com

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