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Aboriginal Sprinter Breaks 100 Meters Record - 2003-05-21

Australia is celebrating a major sporting achievement, with aboriginal sprinter Patrick Johnson this month becoming the country's first athlete to run the 100 meters in less than 10 seconds. He is now the fastest man in the world over the distance and could be aboriginal Australia's next great sporting hero.

It took Australian Patrick Johnson 9.93 seconds to secure his place in history. His record-breaking run came at a low key event at Mito in Japan, May 5.

His journey to the top of international sports began on a trawler in tropical northern Australia three decades ago. After the death of his aboriginal mother when he was 18 months old, Patrick was brought up on a fishing boat by his Irish father.

The Australian sprinter says his humble beginnings have kept his feet firmly on the ground.

"I don't think I'll ever change," he said. "I think from my origins living on a boat, you know, we're fairly much simple Australians trying to do the best we can and prove to the rest of the world that Australians can be competitive in every aspect and not only in sport."

Johnson's nomadic upbringing ended when he entered university in Canberra, the nation's capital. As a student, he won the 100-meter sprint at the Australian University Games in 1996. He was 24 years old and ran wearing running spikes for the first time. A year later, the young Australian beat the great American sprinter Carl Lewis.

His record-breaking sprint came six years later at a low-key event in Japan and Johnson promises to strive for better performances.

"Even though I have the fastest time in the world, I know the other guys will come out and try to break that down so my ambition now is to be even quicker than that," he said.

At 30 years old, Johnson is a late developer in a sport where champions start young. But his coach Esa Petola believes he can only get better.

"If he can run fast without really doing a top end competition preparation, we know it's going to be faster, that's just as simple as that," the coach said.

Johnson's achievement will face serious competition at the world championships in Paris in August and at the Olympics in Athens next year.

There are those who believe Patrick Johnson has the ability to eclipse another indigenous sprinter, Cathy Freeman, as Australia's most successful athlete.

Aborigine groups hope to tap into Johnson's fame to help disadvantaged young people, just as Cathy Freeman has. Many native teenagers are caught up in a familiar spiral of poverty, substance abuse and unemployment.

David Liddiard from the National Aboriginal Sports Corporation believes the champion sprinter could make a real difference.

"Look, I've just come back from Central Australia and one community in particular called Puppunya had 70 young aboriginal kids sniffing petrol. There was a suicide the night we were there. A young 19-year-old guy hung himself. So if we can get more aboriginal athletes out to these communities to talk about education, health, you know, suicide prevention - all those sorts of issues that are strong in these remote and even suburban communities - aboriginal communities - it'll be a great initiative," he said.

Johnson has worked with underprivileged indigenous children in the past. Aboriginal leaders believe he has the power to change lives and that his athletic achievements will be an inspiration to others. As one leader put it, sport is a way to set many black Australians free from their life of poverty, abuse and crime.