On May 23, NBC Sports track and field analyst Ato Boldon asked the question on Twitter: In my career, I beat Maurice Greene, Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt. Who am I?
Answer: John Capel, who for the last four years has been the track and field coach at Springstead High School in Spring Hill, Fla.
“I’m coaching like I’m trying to send every kid I coach to the Olympic Games,” he joked by phone last week. Capel, 41, is nine years removed from the last races of a career that has to be one of the most unlikely in sprint history.
Capel ran track and played wide receiver at the University of Florida in 1998 and 1999. He withdrew from Florida in spring 2000 to focus on the Sydney Games.
In the most anticipated showdown of the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials — Greene vs. Johnson in the 200m final — Capel won after the two headliners pulled up with injuries. At the Olympics, Capel was the favorite but flinched in the blocks just before the gun — a false start wasn’t called — was slowest out of the blocks by .14 of a second and ended up last.
Devastated, Capel quit track and focused on football. He didn’t return to Steve Spurrier‘s Gators — what he calls his biggest regret — but instead went to the 2001 NFL Combine.
There, he tested positive for marijuana. The Chicago Bears still drafted him in the seventh round, but a month later he was arrested on a marijuana-possession charge. Capel was cut before the season, then cut by the Kansas City Chiefs before the 2002 season, never playing an NFL regular-season game.
Capel returned to track for the 2003 season, urged by Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil. Capel was broke, borrowing $20 to pay for gas on his trip from his hometown of Brooksville to Gainesville as his college track coach, Mike Holloway, took him back. After not racing at all in 2001 and 2002, he won the 2003 World title in the 200m.
Then came 2004. Capel had a disappointing Olympic Trials, finishing fifth in the 100m and sixth in the 200m. He was put on the Olympic team as part of the 4x100m pool.
About an hour before the relay’s first round, U.S. head coach George Williams was informed that Capel tested positive for marijuana in Munich a month earlier. Williams could have kept Capel on the relay, but if the sprinter failed his post-race drug test, the entire team would be disqualified. So Williams hurriedly replaced Capel, whose Olympic career ended that night in Athens. (Capel said he was left off at least in part because decision-makers wanted an all-Nike relay team, and he was sponsored by Adidas, but Williams said last week that had nothing to do with it.)
Capel rebounded to take bronze in the 200m at the 2005 World Championships — this is where he beat an 18-year-old Bolt in the quarterfinals, semifinals and final (where Bolt pulled up with a reported leg injury and slowed to finish in last place).
In 2006, Capel tested positive for marijuana again and was banned two years. He made it back for the 2008 Olympic Trials, but didn’t make a final. His athletic career was done.
Capel went back to Brooksville, raising four children with wife Sandy. He said he worked at Oak Hill Hospital from 2009-15. That included monitoring heart rhythms in emergency rooms, sometimes 12-hour shifts.
“That was one of the things that started to bring me out of my shell and have me start to enjoy life,” Capel said. “When you stare at that computer monitor and you watch somebody’s last heartbeat, watching their last breath, and you realize some of the things that you’re going through in your life aren’t all that bad.”
Life got better in 2016. That’s when Capel spoke with Springstead High athletic director Dustin Kupcik at a middle-school football game. Kupcik was looking for a track coach. Capel applied.
Kupcik did his research, checked references. If he read a 2008 Los Angeles Times story, he would have seen it reported that Capel’s offer to coach football at his old high school in 2007 was declined “for fear he would be a bad influence.”
Nearly a decade later, Kupcik found no red flags in Capel’s more recent history.
“He has really been a great role model for our student-athletes,” Kupcik said. “When you see someone that has made a mistake early on and has been an upstanding citizen since, they have a world of experience good and bad that they can share. … I feel like he’s a better coach because of that.”
Capel has also coached, at one time or another, all four of his kids. He’s been asked, Why aren’t we millionaires? Why do you have a regular job?
“Because your dad made a bunch of mistakes,” Capel told them. “That makes them better athletes because they understand, OK, well, dad had all of this, and he lost all of it, and he’s still able to come out of it. It’s starting to help them understand how not to give up, which is a good lesson in life for any kid.”
Capel says he keeps a mentor-mentee relationship with Holloway, conversing about once a month. Holloway, who has coached at least one U.S. Olympian in every Games dating to 1992, called coach Capel a sponge, seeking advice and coming with questions.
“John is easily one of the most talented humans I’ve ever had the chance to work with,” Holloway said of their time together two decades ago. “I just wish that, honestly, his focus on track and field was better. I wish that he had better people around him that didn’t detract him from the special abilities that he had.”
Holloway remembers that night at the Sydney Olympics. Capel was focused on the wrong thing — running a fast time rather than winning the 200m final.
“The last thing I said to him before he went onto the track was, when you get out there, don’t look up in the crowd,” Holloway said of Stadium Australia, which could pack in more than 100,000 spectators. “When he went into the stadium, I saw him look into the stands, and I was like, oh no. I knew we were in trouble.”
Capel said he still feels heartache when thinking of (or watching) that final. It started without him, stuck in the blocks for three tenths of a second after that flinch and the starter’s fire. When it was all over, his expression was masked by dark sunglasses as he crouched on the track, consoled by teammate Coby Miller.
“There’s some parts of me that believe he went to football because he was running away from that mistake that he made that night,” Holloway said. “That he was trying to escape the pain that he felt from not executing that night. If you go back, and he does what he’s more than capable of that night, I think that changes his life forever.”
Capel has also coached middle-school football in recent years. Kupcik said he is in line to join the Springstead High football staff this fall, perhaps as junior varsity head coach.
Capel reflects on his football playing days, too. In the last few years, he attended a Florida Gators reunion in the Daytona area. Spurrier was there. Capel would not mind the opportunity to discuss the past with his old coach, to express his regret for not finishing at Florida an earning his degree. But he hasn’t had the chance.
“Coach is a busy guy,” Capel said. “When he’s around, everybody wants to take pictures with him, so you don’t have a chance to sit down and have that conversation with him. I never got a chance to really sit down and talk to him about it.”
Then there’s Johnson and Bolt. After Boldon tweeted the Capel stat, Johnson questioned whether Capel actually “beat” him given Johnson didn’t finish their only final together. Capel pointed out he beat Johnson in two qualifying rounds at trials, too, and that he will always respect the man with the golden shoes.
“When that whole [trials] race was over,” Capel said, “and me and M.J. went to a meet together, he said, ‘It’s your time now. Have fun with it, and don’t lose.'”
Johnson retired after the Sydney Games. Then came a young Jamaican sprinter named Bolt, ascending to take the 200m mantle. Before Bolt’s rise, Capel snatched world championships gold and bronze medals in 2003 and 2005.
At the latter meet in Helsinki, Capel remembers seeing Bolt in warm-up for the quarterfinals or semifinals.
“I turned to him and said, ‘Hey, listen, I’m going to make you spit out that necklace on the curve today,'” Capel said. “We go out there, and we get on the line and the gun goes off. I look over at him. I’m getting ready to come off the curve. He’s trying to catch me. I see him spit the necklace out of his mouth, and it just brought such a satisfaction to my face.”
That would be the last global championships where Bolt would not stand on a podium. It was also Capel’s last time on a podium.
“I watch Usain Bolt go out and win six [individual Olympic titles],” Capel said last week. “I wish I could have just gotten that one.”
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