Touching Down

THE PEOPLE INTERVIEWING Carl and photographing Carl with his ninth gold medal and generally fawning over Carl didn't notice the pretty young woman, sitting unobtrusively, in the back of the hotel suite. As much as Carl had changed so many things around him, and fought to change track and field, she is the one who had most changed him. ""What can I say but that Carl Lewis is my hero,'' Wendy Marx said, proudly, unashamedly.

The first time they met, seven years ago, she was in a coma.

Even if he had just won his ninth gold medal, tying posterity, equaling the Olympic record of Paavo Nurmi, the fabled Flying Finn, there was yet to be more disputation surrounding Lewis. As soon as he won the long jump, the obvious inquiries began: would he like to anchor the 4x100 relay and thus gain the chance to stand alone for all time with 10 golds? Well, sure, said Carl. And so, in chorus:

Greedy! cried the critics. Lobbyist! Hoots that he didn't practice with the relay team were met with Lewis's reply that he had been told he wouldn't be included; he hadn't even brought his running shoes to Atlanta. Polls showed that he was the people's choice, but it all seemed to resonate of the early Lewis years, when he was dismissed as arrogant and facile, the Maria Callas of the Cinders.

Most people -- even on the team -- were torn. In a plausibly absurd press conference the relay coach, Charlie Greene, finally decreed that if Lewis were chosen, it would be only ""for the national good.'' Apparently, finally, the republic was deemed secure enough; the track establishment would not grant Lewis the dispensation he needed. Bad mistake. The team lost.

Through it all, Lewis remained calm, but always visible. For some reason, one day he was wearing a cowboy getup; another he appeared in a faux-ragged Robinson Crusoe outfit. But then, his ever-changing clothes and coiffure are the random ornaments he has always used to mask the simple soul of consistency. But who knew that? It is so hard for us to abide effortless superiority in the very young -- and Lewis was flamboyant, to boot.

""I always knew that whatever people thought of me, the root of my problem was in my sport,'' Lewis says. ""But I have no bitterness. They just didn't know any better. They had their own idea about what was good for track. Like this relay thing. It never occurred to them how to help the sport. All I could do was hope that eventually people could see who I really was.''

Of course, it's even harder to turn round the ocean liner of bad image in an Olympic sport, where your Q factor doesn't even enter the alphabet except once every four years. But Carl Lewis persisted, and now here he stood: the Grand Old Man of Track and Field. But so what if love comes late? Now Lewis was ready to go off and be a spectator at the Olympics for the first time in his life. By invitation, he and his friends were going to watch the diving with Hillary Clinton.

""The thing that really scares you is that they got Carl so completely wrong,'' Wendy Marx says, looking over, bemused, at the media people now adoring him. ""They called Carl selfish, when he is the most generous person in the world.''

Never, either, it seems, is he quite defeated. At the U.S. Olympic trials, he made the long jump by only an inch. Then in the qualifying last week, age 35, he stood in 15th place, eliminated, before his last jump, when he uncorked the longest leap of the evening. But the following night, at the finals, his first two appeared to be only the wan stuff of a cursory valedictory.

Leaning back on the ground on his elbows, photographers upon him, searching for the worry -- the defeat -- upon his face, Lewis finally began to move about in preparation for his next jump. In his own fastidious fashion, he made sure to walk over to the correct receptacle, there to properly deposit his used water bottle. Then, again, he took his mark, precisely 21 strides from liftoff at the board.

""When I was younger, I was so confident,'' he would say now, as he prepared for his audience with the First Lady. ""I had my coach and my manager and my family around, but I didn't need them to win. But this year -- this year, I needed people with me to win. Every person was there for the whole ride, and I used them like human Post-its to help me prepare. This time I had to fight to win, but even better, I knew I would get to share it.''

On his mark again, now Lewis stopped trying to juice himself up with hackneyed exhortations. Instead, he told himself merely to count each step as he took it. ""I had to get back to what I had told myself, months before: don't try to win the Olympics. Just compete well.'' So to himself as he rolled: ""One, two, three ...'' -- announcing out loud the last 21 steps Carl Lewis would ever take that mattered in competition. He took off and, incredibly, ran out to almost 28 feet in the air. It was over. ""Meant to be,'' sighed Joe Greene, the bronze medalist.

Maybe it is best, too, that Lewis and the Flying Finn will be tied, forever. Just as Lewis was denied a 10th gold in the relay, so was Paavo Nurmi yanked from the Finnish lineup in the 10,000 in 1924 so that a lesser teammate might have a chance. The other fellow won the gold, too. But outside the stadium, on a track nearby, the irked Nurmi ran by himself with a stopwatch, beating the official winner by 40 seconds. Some athletes are simply meant to win.

Back in 1989, when Carl Lewis didn't yet need anybody to help him, he began the process of hagiography that we know as sports autobiography. One day in November, Lewis's collaborator, Jeffrey Marx, called Lewis to inform him that his sister, Wendy, had fallen into a coma in San Francisco and desperately needed a kidney transplant. Immediately, Lewis flew across the country to join the Marx family. He stood by Wendy's bedside.

""Even though Carl had never met Wendy before,'' Jeffrey says, ""you could feel his energy.'' Hours later, before dawn, the two men paced the empty hospital corridors together. Neither had appreciated how difficult it was to obtain organ donations. At that moment, they made a pact that whatever might happen to Wendy, this would be their cause. That very day Lewis began public appeals for organ donation.

At last a kidney for Wendy Marx was found. She has lived, as the Wendy Marx Foundation for Organ Donor Awareness was born. Half a million Carl Lewis organ- donor cards were passed out in conjunction with this Olympics.

The two men, Wendy's brother and Wendy's hero, are working on the updated Lewis autobiography. They gave it a title six months ago: ""One More Victory Lap.'' They were either very prescient or very faithful. Anyway, the title lap was run, and afterward Lewis brought back some sand he had scooped up from the pit, and the flag he had carried and other memorabilia, and handed them over to be auctioned off for the Wendy foundation.

""I've changed largely because now I'm able to be part of the whole world,'' Lewis says. ""Don't worry: I'll be happy without track. There'll be another place for my heart and passion.''

The ninth gold medal was back at the hotel, forgotten. And there would be no 10th. Carl was taking Wendy and his other human Post-its to the diving.