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Crawford at 30 hardly defensive

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

BEIJING Don't ask Shawn Crawford about defending his 2004 gold medal in the 200-meter dash.

“I'm not defending anything,” said Crawford, who grew up in tiny Van Wyck, S.C., was a multi-sport star at Indian Land (S.C.) High and was a two-time NCAA champion at Clemson. “I have the 2004 gold medal. That one is mine. This is a new thing – an all-comers meet. I'm just like everybody else here, trying to obtain a gold.”

Crawford is 30 now – a bit old for an Olympic sprinter. He finished second in the Olympic Trials to get to China and won't be the favorite in the 200 this time around. But he believes he has a good shot.

The qualifying heats for the 200 start Monday morning in Beijing (Sunday night in the United States). The final is Wednesday.

When I asked Crawford what the difference was between him as a runner now and four years ago, he said: “I feel like the 26-year-old Shawn Crawford had more talent. But I feel like the 30-year-old Shawn Crawford is a smarter, more mature athlete. If you put the 30-year-old's mind in that 26-year-old's body, that would be a force to be reckoned with.”

Although Crawford has deep Carolina roots and still has lots of family in the Van Wyck area, including his mother Sylvia Crawford, he now lives in Los Angeles. There he trains under coach Bobby Kersee.

“I miss Carolina,” Crawford said, “because it's home. I miss everything about it. I miss not being able to go fishing like I would like to.”

At the 2004 Olympics, Crawford's coach was the infamous Trevor Graham, who has become a pariah in the sport. Graham, who once led a powerful group of sprinters from a base in Raleigh, received a lifetime ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in July for his role in helping some of his athletes obtain performance-enhancing drugs. Some of those high-profile athletes included Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery and Crawford's close friend Justin Gatlin, all of whom wrecked their track careers with performance enhancers.

Crawford, though, said he was clean athlete during his time with Graham and is a clean athlete now. It has never been proven otherwise.

“I don't feel like I've been tarnished by all that,” Crawford said. “But everybody has an opinion. People might speculate that birds of a feather flock together. I can't control those opinions. I've never tested positive for anything, and that's because I've never used any performance enhancers whatsoever. I've been clean all my life.”

In 2004, Crawford led a 1-2-3 U.S. sweep in the 200. “That gold medal changed my life, but it wasn't just me doing that,” Crawford said. “That was my family, my friends and my whole country holding me on their shoulders. It also made me look at myself under a microscope a little bit, to be cautious about all the decisions I made. It made me step back and look at myself as a role model a little more.” A powerfully built former high-school running back at Indian Land, Crawford has a flamboyant streak. In a made-for-TV appearance, he once raced against a zebra and a giraffe (he beat the giraffe and lost to the zebra). He also once ran in a “Phantom of the Opera” mask at a meet in Italy. The mask got loose. Crawford veered out of his lane and got disqualified.

But Crawford said he doesn't do things like that now. “I'm a lot calmer than I used to be,” Crawford said.

I asked Crawford about his plans for after the Olympics, including whether he would try to compete at the 2012 Olympics in London. He was cheerfully ambiguous.

“I don't really have any plans,” Crawford said. “I am just going to ride this track thing until the wheels fall off.”

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