The ever-present, incandescent smile shows how much Dwight Phillips loves being the best long jumper in the world, but it masks the intense desire that got him there.
"I don't think anybody works as hard as me," he said, "or is more passionate than me about what I'm doing right now."
No one else on the U.S. team at the World Track and Field Championships has dominated an event the way Phillips has, a fact sometimes lost among the parade of young American stars in the more attention-grabbing events.
In the past two years, Phillips has reclaimed an event long dominated by Americans such as Mike Powell, Carl Lewis, Larry Myricks and Bob Beamon. He won the outdoor and indoor world championships in 2003, then won the gold medal at the Athens Olympics. So imagine his disgust when he was beaten by Miguel Pate at the U.S. championships in June.
According to Phillips, going into that meet he had not taken one training jump since injuring a hamstring in early April. He believed he was good enough to just show up at the nationals and win. But Pate, once a main rival of Phillips, had endured two painful years of rehabilitation after a severe knee injury and beat the Olympic champion by 11/4 inches.
The smile was gone when Phillips left the track that day.
"I think that loss made me even hungrier," he said this week. "It really humbled me because I just can't see myself being beat. You can tell the character of a champion not just in how he wins, but in how he loses. I think I learned a lot from that."
Phillips said he used his summer season for training, and the results were not impressive at first. But two weeks ago in Madrid, he jumped 27 feet 91/2 inches, the best mark in the world this year. On July 25, in a warmup meet for the worlds at Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, he went 27-81/4, tied with Mohamed Salman Al-Khuwalidi of Saudi Arabia for second-best in the world. Now, he said, he is ready to defend his title.
"I get my confidence from winning, just kicking my opponents' butts every time," Phillips said. "That makes me feel good and I get a lot of joy in that."
Phillips was born in Decatur, Ga., and at age 14, he was playing football in the street when he was struck by a motorcycle ridden by a friend of his brother. His legs were broken below the knee, and he spent six months on crutches. He was told he might not walk again, but within eight months he was running.
A high school sprint star, Phillips first went to Kentucky, then transferred to Arizona State. After living in Tempe for eight years, he moved with his new wife, Valerie, back to Georgia last October to be closer to family.
The championships began a nine-day run yesterday at Olympic Stadium, site of the 1952 Helsinki Games. Long jump preliminaries aren't until Friday, with the finals the following day. Expect Phillips to get the crowd going with the rhythmic clapping he uses to get himself emotionally peaked for the competition.
"He's special, he's in his own world," U.S. men's coach John Smith said. "I see a young man that basically rises to the occasion. He jumps with the crowd. He wants the crowd to get involved with him."
Phillips often studies a video of the greatest long jump competition of all time. It occurred in Tokyo on Aug. 30, 1991, when Powell set the world record at 29-41/2 in a duel with Lewis, who went 29-11/4 -- the third-best mark ever. By comparison, Phillips's best is 28-23/4, set last year.
"I don't think he's even grasped his potential yet," Smith said.
Phillips turns 28 this fall, but believes there is still time for him to approach the world mark, especially if there are jumpers such as Pate to push him.
"It's in me physically," Phillips said. "I just have to put myself in a state of mind where I'm capable of setting a world record."