He had called this "my comeback meet," as though he had been somewhere dreadful for a depressingly long time. And when Renaldo Nehemiah floated over 10 hurdles and across the finish line tonight he had indeed reestablished his preeminent position. He had come full circle and taken off into orbit again.

"I am definitely back," he proclaimed after winning the Olympic trials 10-meter hurdles in the fastest time in the world this year, just .26 seconds off his 13-second world record. And on a mostly-wet track. On a cold night. After he'd slipped in the semifinals less than two hours earlier. c

"I definitely was afraid before the finals," he said. "Very timid. But I knew if I was the guy I used to be it would come. I ran the first seven hurdles fast, as hard as I could, all out. Then I knew I was far enough ahead that the only way I could lose was on a disaster.

"So I just tried to execute, be fast but also comfortable. I used my head."

That was a nice contrast to the semis.

I anticipated running a very fast time," he said, "I wanted a perfect time to psych everyone. I have an elongated start -- and a little girl was holding the blocks. A very little girl. So I slipped a bit at the start.

"And I went over the sixth hurdle a little high and landed flat-footed. Slipped again. Almost lost it, in fact. It taught me another lesson -- hurdlers stay on their toes. But not running through the finish line (he finished second in the heat) I still ran 13.6."

He was asked about that comeback talk, since he hardly had been away from No. 1 very long. He chuckled.

"I didn't start off this season where I left off last season," he said. "I'd done 13.39 in the World Cup and then 7.02 indoors.Then there was the torn cartilage (in his left ankle). The first time back (in the hurdles in early May) I barely won. The second time I lost.

"This was the key race."

Three months past his 21st birthday, Nehemiah is that nearly-unique athlete who has fulfilled even the most outrageous expectations -- both others' and his own. And his promise was seen as boundless.

There is a winter book of sorts for precocious athletes in advance of the Olympics, much like the one for young horses before the Kentucky Derby. At least three years before these ill-fated Games, the teen-age tornado called Skeets was projected as the 110-meter hurdles winner in Moscow.

Such foresight is as much folly as it is fun, for so much can hamper the Olympic favorite even moments before his event begins. Injuries and mental and physical fatigue have caused scores of prodigies to fall well short of their potential, well before the Games.

Nehemiah has survived in spectacular fashion. He was supposed to set a world record -- and he did. Only insiders knew he was the best athlete at Maryland the moment he enrolled; the first time he ran as a Terrapin, everyone began to sense that, one day, he might be the best athlete in the world.

He not only won every race, he seemed to set a record each time he flashed across the finish line.

"I wanted to be No. 1 -- by far," he said. "Indoors and outdoors. I broke records at will -- and so fast. In two years, I went from high school to college to international competition and set records almost everywhere. I had five of the best times ever."

But he was human. He had achieved as much as anyone his age ever had in track and field, but he wanted more. Whether for ego gratification or money -- or a combination of both -- Nehemiah pushed even his extra-ordinary body beyond its limit last year.

He ran with a 103-degree fever and won the Pan Am Games. He ran three races in four days later in Europe and -- 10 pounds underweight -- barely won the World Cup. Then he suffered through the inevitable injuries and the personal dilemma of whether what was best for him was best for the school providing his education.

Maryland Coach Frank Costello was tugging at him from one direction, shoe companies from others. He has switched shoe companies, advertising himself and Puma on especially stylish and varied running costumes. He has made peace with Costello, he said, but will pay his way to earn those final 30 credits at Maryland and thus be able to run at his own whims.

"I've been there three years," he said. "I'd lose too much by transferring."

Nehemiah is a communications major who communicates in a manner his friends see as unbridled confidence and his opponents see as arrogance. He does not mind acknowledging he is the best in his event; he also seems to relish playing public mind games with other runners.

When his apparent closest rival for the hurdles title here, Greg Foster of UCLA, withdrew before the quarter-final heat Sunday, Nehemiah hinted the reason might be more than a physical one.

"I do think he's very concerned," Nehemiah volunteered. "I felt he was afraid of me. He said hello, but with his head toward the ground."

He was asked if Foster might be suffering from "Nehemiah-itis."

"It's been in the air," Nehemiah said, "I think he knows I'm running well."

"I get a little mad when I hear that," said Foster's coach, Jim Bush. "Greg ran against Nehemiah last year with a chipped bone and with a bone spur. He (Foster) said he was weak as a kitten. He could get hurt if he's feeling that weak. He had a 102-degree temperature (two days before the quarterfinals). Greg can take the criticism.We both know he's the best hurdler in the world."

Nehemiah had been concerned about motivation before that 13.26 tonight. Re-invigorated now in his own event, he ran such an astonishing leg for Maryland in the mile relay at the Penn Relays this year that the notion of eventually competing in the 400-meter hurdles intrigues him.