Improved by Miles

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Southeast taps into the potential of Miles Smith in the 400

Joey Haines admits he would not be truthful if he said he thought Miles Smith already would rank as one of the nation's -- no, make that world's -- premier 400-meter runners at this point in his college career.

But Southeast Missouri State's veteran track and field coach said he believed Smith possessed untapped potential that suggested plenty more than the relatively modest success he achieved in high school.

"I'd be lying if I told you I thought he would be this good this quick," Haines said. "But I really thought he was going to be something special."

Smith, in just his sophomore season, has emerged as a special athlete for the Redhawks.

And today, Smith will attempt to continue his amazing ascent when the NCAA Championships begin in Sacramento, Calif. Smith will compete in tonight's first round of 400-meter preliminaries with his eye on advancing into Friday's semifinals and then Saturday's finals.

"I'm ready to go," Smith said. "I can't wait."

Smith, a St. Louis native, enters the national meet with high hopes -- and with good reason. He has the nation's fifth-fastest time this year, a mark of 45.16 seconds that not only broke his own school record but also lifted him to victory at the NCAA Mideast Regional on May 28 in Bloomington, Ind.

Oh, by the way, Smith is also ranked 14th in the world this year, with the world's 19th-fastest time. (Several of the ranked competitors appear on the list multiple times.)

"Being ranked that high gives me a real boost of confidence," Smith said.

Not that he really needed the extra push, because a laughing Haines said the outgoing Smith certainly doesn't lack for confidence.

"Miles thinks he's the best in the world," Haines said. "He thinks he can do anything."

That was the case even at Riverview Gardens High School in suburban St. Louis, where Smith had a solid but far from spectacular senior season. He finished fourth in the 400 meters at the Class 4 state meet, in a somewhat pedestrian 49.05 seconds, while running legs on the 800-meter relay team that placed first and the 1,600-meter relay team that was third.

Smith said he knew all along that he was much better than his high school performances, but he said several injuries -- along with a late growth spurt that took him to 6 feet 3 inch -- held him back.

"Even in high school, I knew I had this in me," Smith said. "I had been hurt a lot, I was injury prone, and I was 5-feet-7 for the longest time, then I finally started growing, but it took a while for my body to finally catch up with my height.

"I had always been fast when I was younger."

Haines was not intimidated by Smith's so-so times in high school.

"I went to see him run, and as soon as I saw him run in the sectional, you could just tell, just had that hunch, that this guy was really going to be good," Haines said. "I felt like we had to get him signed before state in case he really did something. He had a good state meet, not a great state meet, then he had a really good summer."

That impressive summer, in which Smith ran one of the nation's top times for his age group, carried over almost as soon as he entered Southeast.

Smith had a strong indoor season as a freshman, then captured the 400 title at the Ohio Valley Conference outdoor championships to qualify for regionals.

This year, Smith won the OVC indoor and outdoor 400 while anchoring the Redhawks' victorious 1,600 relay team that also qualified for nationals and will compete this week. He was Southeast's lone national qualifier during the indoor season -- placing 11th -- then really blew up at the recent Mideast Regional, where he defeated LSU's Kelly Willie, a member of the United States gold medal 1,600 relay team at the 2004 Olympics.

"To beat a gold medalist was exciting," Smith said. "Like I said, I knew I could do this. But knowing you can do it and actually doing it is different."

Now Smith will try to do it again this week on the biggest stage that college track and field has to offer.

Smith won't be the favorite to capture the 400 title -- the top eight finishers in the finals earn All-American honors -- but his times suggest that he could be in the hunt with a strong performance, although the field is loaded.

Florida State's Ricardo Chambers has the nation's top time (44.87 seconds), followed by LSU's Willie (44.97), Baylor's Darold Williamson (45.06), Arizona State's Domenik Peterson (45.15) and Smith.

While Willie was an alternate on the U.S. gold medal 1,600 relay team at the 2004 Olympics, Williamson anchored the squad.

"The 400 field is really outstanding, with several Olympic gold medalists, but Miles has proven he can compete with the best," Haines said. "If you told me Miles was going to win, I won't argue with you. He thinks he's going to win. He's that type of competitor. He came in here saying he was going to do exactly what he's doing.

"It would not surprise me if he won, but he could run as fast as he ran at regionals and only finish fourth or fifth, or even lower, because the field is that good."

Said Smith: "I think I can win. I know I can win. I'll have to run faster than I have, but I know I can because the competition brings out the best in me."

Regardless of what happens this week, Smith figures to continue charging straight ahead during his final two seasons of college eligibility. The Olympics always were a goal of his, but what he accomplished recently has added fuel to the fire.

"I can remember in 1996, I was about 12 years old, I was watching the Olympics and I said I want to do that," Smith said. "That was always my goal, but now, with two years left, and being just 20 years old, I feel like I can definitely do it."

Haines is not about to argue with his sophomore sensation.

"Miles is going to get better," Haines said. "He's going to get a lot stronger, which will help him. He never really wanted to lift weights. When he came in, there were girls on the team stronger than him. He's gotten stronger, but he's probably only now at where he should have been in high school.

"I don't think you can rule out Miles doing anything. I'd say his ranking right now qualifies him as a world-class runner, and his best days are still ahead of him. The Olympics are definitely a possibility."

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