By Mitch Abramson
Then along comes Saphrona McLennon of Jamaica, whose fairy-tale saga is so unique and interesting that it forces you to drop everything and forget about this race and that race and finally you realize that this race, McLennon's race, the Open 100-meter High Hurdles, is the only one that matters.She was the favorite going in, so overwhelmingly dominant in the trials and prelims that her gold medal was practically getting fitted before the final when the unthinkable happens: McLennon hits the second hurdle and then the third hurdle and with her stride compromised, her splits slowing down and her knee throbbing from hitting all those damn hurdles, she finds herself running, not for first, like everyone expected, but for third. So there goes her time of 13.9 – the best time out of the trials two months earlier – and there goes her earlier victory over Natilee Dawkins, who won it when it counted in 14.21 Friday.McLennon managed to get third, going wire to wire with the second-place finisher, Rochester's Kela Jackson, but it was obviously not the position McLennon, 28, envisioned for herself. She was stunned after the race, like someone just awakened from a terrible dream, barely able to stomach her time of 14.74.”This is the worst race I've run all season,” she said.It is a day later and McLennon, who ran for Benjamin Cardozo High School and later for St. John's, where she set records in the 55-meter hurdles and the 4×100 relay, again is not where she wants to be: trailing two other teams in the 4×100 relay going into her third leg. She doesn't really want to be here, wishing instead she were running in an individual event by herself, so she can win by herself, when something goes off in her head. She passes the first team and then the second team and soon she has given her team such a big lead that Nekisha Franklin in the anchor can win skipping backwards. McLennon, in 47.69, finally has her gold medal, just in the wrong race.”I guess it kind of makes up for yesterday, but it's still not the same as running in an individual event,” she said. “I am real happy to win the gold, but I would have preferred it in the individual event; there's more (of) a sense of accomplishment there. I wish I could switch the medals around.” She almost didn't make it to these games, her third trip here. A car accident four years ago left her with a fractured neck and a herniated disc. A month before she was scheduled to run in the Olympic trials for the country of Jamaica, she got rear-ended on her way back from a track meet. The lost soul in the other car tried to give her a couple hundred bucks to make her forget about the whole thing, but her track career was worth a million times that. She filed a police report and took him for a little money in the process.”I had an outside shot of making the Olympics, but it was still a shot,” she said.”For three years she didn't run track,” said Dwayne Johnson, her personal coach. “This year was meant to be for fun. Next year we will be a lot more aggressive.”With her track career stalling after the accident, she joined the police force and was in the cadet training program when the terrorists hit Ground Zero. Soon she was spending 16 hours a day escorting people to and from their apartments and helping to secure the area.”I was working so hard down there – you really didn't have any time to think about what's going on,” McLennon said. “I was so drained after that experience that I took a year's leave from the precinct and never came back.”She put her track career on the back burner and used the time wisely, earning a master's degree in May from St. John's and enrolling in a doctorate program. Before McLennon flirted with becoming a cop she worked as a fraud investigator for the state, cracking down on people who illegally collect welfare and Social Security. Now she wants to be a college teacher and fulfill her vast potential as an elite track athlete. You get the idea that McLennon has the energy and imagination to do whatever she wants.She has already won the Colgate Games three times, claimed a gold, two silvers and a bronze at the Empires and raced to victory at the Penn State Invitational. Can't wait for the encore.Reach reporter Mitch Abramson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.