'Cheetah Man' ready for all comers

Shawn Crawford has a message for The Zebra.

"Tell the Zebra," says the American sprinter, "I coulda whooped him."

Crawford is known to many as the nameless track athlete who successfully raced a giraffe but then lost to a zebra in FOX's "Man vs. Beast" spectacle last January. Even before then in track circles, he was known as the world's craziest runner. But a major attitude adjustment may change Crawford's reputation significantly. On a U.S. track team searching for male star power, Crawford suddenly has a legitimate shot at gold in the man vs. man competition known as the Olympic 100-meter dash.

But first, let's cut to the literal chase. Crawford -- who refers to himself as Cheetah Man "because I'm an animal lover ... RRRRAAAAHHHHH!" -- honestly believes he can beat the zebra in a rematch. He says he had to wait nearly 12 hours for his race, which was scheduled for the early afternoon but took place after midnight at a track in University City, Calif. Crawford says the wait and the cool weather (an estimated 46 degrees) caused his muscles to tighten. The race was not close.

"It was painful," says Crawford, "Plus, there were other problems. (For instance) the giraffe was not acting right."

You might say Crawford was not acting right. Here's a guy who has resorted to some, let's say, questionable methods of competing. Crawford, 26, has spent all but the last seven months of his professional career without a coach. He admits to having run the occasional sprint without even stretching beforehand. ("Sometimes I get to the track meet late," he explains.)

At one race in Italy in '02, he false-started simply because "I had never false-started before and I wanted to charge one to the field." Crawford then false-started again, this time by accident, and was disqualified. "I didn't know what the rule was," says Cheetah Man, sheepishly.

Then there's the infamous "mask race." In 2002, Crawford went to a party and came across a "Phantom of the Opera" mask. He decided he liked the look and wanted to wear one while competing. So he bought a mask for the 200-meter dash at an IAAF meet in Milan. He did not tell anyone about the stunt, deciding instead to whip out the costume seconds before the gun.

Unfortunately, something happened on the way to the finish line -- the mask dislodged. Crawford couldn't see. He veered out of his lane and got disqualified. Crawford still doesn't understand what happened, explaining that he even stuck his head out of his car window on the way to the airport as a precaution. (Crawford still wants to try war paint. "Look forward to it," he says. "Watch me at every meet.")

Crawford has been a bit of an outlier his entire life.

"He's kind of like a loner," says agent Kimberly Trammell, who Crawford hired last June. "That's one reason he chose track and field. It's an individual sport."

Crawford was raised in the tiny South Carolina town of Van Wyck mostly by his grandmother, Bernice, who died when Crawford was 13. He started sprinting, he says, out of fear of the belt his uncle used for discipline.

"You gotta have some speed," he says, "when you have people trying to track you down."

Crawford outran his uncle and everyone else in South Carolina. He won three state championships as a prep, one in the 100 and two in the 200. Then he won the indoor 200 national championship twice at Clemson before graduating in 2000. But he did not hire a coach after turning pro because he felt he knew his body better than any mentor would. Several shoe companies even shied away from Crawford because of the perception that he didn't take his career seriously.

Finally, after winning bronze in the 200 at the World Outdoors and gold at the World Indoors in '01, Crawford's performance started to lag. Last year, he did not make the U.S. outdoor team. Then, in November, Trammell convinced Crawford to hire renowned coach Trevor Graham, who went right to work on Crawford's most glaring problems -- his technique and his discipline.

This year, Crawford has already won the U.S. Indoor Championship in the 60, placed second in the World Indoor 60, and won the Prefontaine 100. Turns out Crawford might be as good in the 100 as he is in the 200 if he can consistently start with the rest of the field.

"It's good to have somebody to watch over you from your first movement off the blocks," says Crawford. "I'm making better movements. Instead of just popping up, I come out and down the track."

Crawford's newfound maturity comes at a perfect time for USA Track, which has unknowns in the oft-injured Maurice Greene, the rarely seen Tim Montgomery, and the still-young Justin Gatlin.

"He's changed," says Gatlin, who trains with Crawford under Graham. "He's almost become a workaholic. He ran sub-10 with no coaching whatsoever. No discipline whatsoever. Now he works for it. He's strong as an ox, putting up 365 (pounds in the bench press) easily. I think we can become the new Ato Boldon and Maurice Greene."

That's a bad omen for the rest of the world's sprinters, as well as a certain striped animal whom Crawford might revisit after the Olympics.

The Zebra could not be reached for comment.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.