By Gene Cherry
(Reuters) - America's newest 400 metres star Michael Norman could become one of the all-time best, according to the 1992 Olympic champion who coaches him.
Norman earned instant headlines with an eye-catching 44.52 seconds in only his third indoor 400 metres race as he shattered the indoor world record at the U.S. collegiate championships in March.
As the 20-year-old Californian matures and learns the event, there should be even more success, Barcelona Olympic 400 metres gold medallist Quincy Watts told Reuters.
"I've seen a lot," Watts said in a telephone interview. "I've seen Butch Reynolds, Steve Lewis, Michael (Johnson) and Wayde (South African world record holder Wayde van Niekerk)....
"I have never seen anyone like him," the coach said of Norman, who hours after his 400 metres world record anchored a University of Southern California team to the fastest indoor 4x400 metres relay ever run.
"He's definitely a different class. He has a potential speedwise to be faster than them all," Watts said. "Just straight raw speed."
That raw speed introduced Norman to the world as a teenager when he finished fifth in the 200 metres at the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials and went on to claim 200 metres gold at the world junior championships.
Now in his second year at Southern California with the 400 metres his primary event, Norman, who seldom talks times, has at least one in mind - Watts's outdoor school record 43.50 seconds.
"Mike always talks about breaking that record," Watts said of the mark he set in winning the Barcelona Olympics.
With collegiate records now limited to performances during the college season, that would also wipe out Fred Kerley's 2017 mark of 43.70 seconds.
Athletics website FloTrack believes it is possible, flagging up Norman and Jamaican Nathon Allen, the 2017 world championships fifth-place finisher who competes for Auburn University, as likely contenders.
Norman would need a big improvement outdoors, his best being 44.60 seconds to Allen's 44.19 seconds.
"My speed is a huge advantage in the 400," Norman said. "But I think what makes me great is that Coach Watts and I sit down and nitpick every part of the race to make sure I perfect it."
Watts sees more.
"The combination that makes him over-the-top special is he has the endurance and the stamina to go with that speed," the coach said.
The speed of a Johnson, who once held the 200 and 400 metres world records, and the endurance of Van Niekerk, the coach noted.
Yet, in many ways Norman is still learning the event, especially indoors.
"Mike is a West Coast kid and he has not been introduced to a lot of indoor running such as the East Coast kids," Watts said, noting Norman tweaked a hamstring while running against more experienced competitors on a banked indoor track last year.
"My goal for Mike is I want Mike to learn about the event," Watts said.
"He hasn't had the luxury to actually become comfortable with the 400 because of the injury and every time he steps on the track, he has always had to be almost at his best to win the race."
Before the world record race, Watts gave Norman a card with a pair of 200 metres splits he thought his pupil could run. Together they equalled the world record.
"The first lap I think I was a couple of hundredths off," Norman said. "But the second lap I think I fell right in the range he wanted me to come in."
Actually it was faster, the sprinter taking 0.05 seconds off American Kerron Clement's 2005 world record.
But Watts was not surprised.
"It's his third race career wise (indoors) and he is coming off rehab and he breaks the world record," said the delighted coach.
(Reporting by Gene Cherry in Salvo, North Carolina, editing by Ed Osmond)