It was probably worthy of at least a passing mention, for it is something of a defining characteristic. These are the kinds of stories that work their way into mini-documentaries during the Olympics, accompanied by melancholy music and dramatic narration. Allen Johnson, Olympic champion, wanted -- and received -- no part of all that, because he feels in no way afflicted.
"I read about it," said Curtis Frye, the man who has coached Johnson in the hurdles since his college days, back in the early 1990s.
"Allen never talks about things like that," said Dennis Craddock, the head track coach at Johnson's alma mater, the University of North Carolina.
"For me," Johnson said, "it was really never worth talking about."
Allen Johnson -- born in the District, raised mostly in Fairfax -- has been on the fringes of the track and field spotlight for the better part of a decade. He has been part of the glory, the gold medal winner in his lone event, the 110-meter hurdles, at the Atlanta Games in 1996, when he set an Olympic record but was overshadowed by 400-meter winner Michael Johnson. He has been part of the sorrow, finishing a disappointing fourth in Sydney in 2000, when his quest for back-to-back golds was hindered by injury and lost in the swirl around sprinter Marion Jones.
Acclaim or not, Johnson still has plenty of hope left. At 33, he will be one of the favorites at the U.S. Olympic trials in July, where he should earn a spot in the Games for the third time. Once in Athens, he could well be a favorite for another gold.
Who knew he was doing all this with one eye?
"It's something I've had all my life," Johnson said last week. "I don't know what it's like to have two eyes. People say, 'It must be difficult.' Well, I say, 'It must be difficult to have two eyes.' "
There you have it. Legally blind in his left eye. No problem. Been that way since birth.
"I didn't see where I was any different than anybody else," Johnson said.
Neither did his mother. Sondra Smith had the same condition, just in her right eye. The lens is misshapen, causing distortion, Smith said, though neither she nor Johnson can come up with a name for the problem. "It's called, 'You can't see out of one eye,' " Johnson said.
When Allen was born, Smith, knowing the condition could be hereditary, had him checked out immediately. Allen wore a patch over his good eye, for a time, but remembers ripping it off in protest. He wore lenses in his glasses that were clouded over his good eye, trying to coax strength from the bad eye. He used to break his glasses so frequently that his mother would buy two pairs at a time, but not tell him, quietly keeping a backup in reserve.
"I was 35 years old before I even knew there was something called 'depth perception,' " Smith said.
Johnson wore glasses as he grew up, one lens far thicker than the other, an attempt to provide any sight -- any at all -- in his left eye. But the other school kids -- first in Cincinnati, where Smith moved for work, then in Virginia Beach, and then at Lake Braddock High in Burke -- poked fun at him. He traded glasses for contacts.
"Very seldom," Smith said, "do I ever see him wear glasses now."
On the track, Johnson was developing into a multi-talented force. As a senior in 1989, he scored 22 of Lake Braddock's 23 points at the indoor state meet. At the outdoor meet, he won both the long and high jumps and finished third in the 110-meter hurdles despite pulling a hamstring muscle late in the regular season.
"We really recruited him as a little bit of everything," Craddock said. "Hurdles, high jump, long jump, triple jump, sprints. He was so versatile."
Frye, now the head coach at South Carolina and then an assistant at UNC, was the man who worked long and hard to hone Johnson's hurdling technique, the man who told him how committed he must be if he wanted to make track his life. Frye can watch Johnson run and detect the slightest error in his stride, his leap, the angle of his neck, the smallest discrepancy anywhere, physical or mental. But the man who still coaches Johnson today had no idea about his star pupil's eyesight.
"It's better that I didn't know," Frye said. "I may have made an adjustment some way that I didn't need to, workout-wise. Or I might have put him in meets where he would have had a better competitor on one side but not the other. I might have tried to manipulate the system, and I didn't need to. It wasn't an issue."
Unless, Johnson worried, it affected his daughter.
If there is a lasting image of Johnson's career, it is that of the aftermath of his gold medal in Atlanta, when he plucked his daughter, Tristine, from the stands, and carried her around the track. She was just 3, and had Michael Johnson not dominated the headlines that Olympics, Allen and Tristine might have graced the front page of more newspaper sections.
"She was pretty much my inspiration, my motivation," Johnson said.
Johnson, even in high school, had been committed to track; Tristine merely provided an urgency to the commitment. Born in the fall of his senior year to Johnson and his college girlfriend, Marcia Williamson, Tristine forced Johnson's maturation. Suddenly, he was getting up earlier in the morning, fixing bottles, carting an infant to class in a Carolina-blue snuggly.
When he finished at UNC in the spring of 1993, he and Williamson had decisions other graduates didn't face. They sat down, and talked.
"We asked, 'What skills or what talents do we have to provide the best for our daughter?' " Williamson said.
Track, they thought. They kept returning to track. Never mind that Johnson worked at a local pizza place, the Pizza Inn, wearing a ridiculous-looking pink-T-shirt-and-green-hat combination, all to clean up the mess made by the patrons who ravaged the all-you-can-eat-for-$4.99 buffet every day. When he finished work, he'd ride his bike back over to campus, work out, and return home to be a father. The backdrop was two-pronged: The Olympics, and his daughter.
"To be honest, I was broke," Johnson said. "I didn't have any money. I knew I had a child, so the question became, 'What are you going to do? You've got to get some money coming in here.'
"Every time I lined up, I had to do well. I had an obligation."
His obligation, though, didn't bring instant results. By 1994, he had raced only twice in Europe, where the real money is to be made. His struggles were real; he needed to compete in the Millrose Games in New York to further his career, but had to borrow $50 to get around town. Williamson carried much of the burden for Tristine, and Johnson knew it, felt it. He told her time and again: Help me now, and I'll help you later.
"He never turned his back on the situation, despite the fact that we weren't married," Williamson said. "There were lots of people who would throw up their hands. He was never, ever that way. He'd get his training in where he could. He's always found the time, even now, to speak to his daughter on a daily basis, to be there for her."
In 1995, he broke through, winning the first of what would become four world championships, more than any man has ever won in the 110 hurdles. Money began to flow in, not as it did for Michael Johnson or Jones, but enough that borrowing fifty bucks was no longer a concern. In '96, he won that Olympic gold, with Tristine in the crowd. In a sense, he gave it back to her. He still lived in Chapel Hill, and he and Williamson had decided they wouldn't get married. So he bought a house -- not for himself, but for Williamson and Tristine.
"I asked him the question, 'Why did you do that?' " said Smith, Johnson's mother. "He said, 'Well, I could not live with myself if I had a nice place to live, and my daughter didn't.' "
Tristine is 11, old enough to run track, to have her father call from wherever he is -- be it at home in Columbia, S.C., or in Ostrava in the Czech Republic, where he is running this week -- to check up on her results. She has sight in both her eyes; Johnson made sure of that early on, checking with doctors. Should her father advance to Athens, there's a chance Tristine will make the trek, too, as she did to Atlanta, as she did to Sydney.
"I don't want to make the arrangements yet," Johnson said. "I'm a little superstitious about that."
When he faltered in Sydney, hobbled by a tweaked hamstring suffered just weeks before the Games, Tristine was there to tell him it was okay. "Whether she's there or not," Williamson said, "she's always a part of what her dad does."
As is his eyesight, though no one knew, and no one would have known had he not brought it up himself. Everyone who knows him speaks about his business-like approach, particularly in Olympic years. Now, with his third Olympics within reach, the focus of others will be on what they consider unusual, what he considers normal -- his eyes. He understands.
"I don't regret talking about it," Johnson said. "I think that there have to be other people out there with the same condition. There are parents out there with children, and they think [the kids] can't do sports. It's like, 'Johnny has this problem. He'll never be able to go outside and play with his friends.'
"Well, I'm here to say, 'Yeah, he can.' "