Shawn Crawford

updated 08/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sprinter Shawn Crawford says he's puzzled by his rep as a bit of a space shot. "Maybe people that think I'm crazy just don't know me," he says. Maybe, but there was that time in 2002 when, on a whim, he ran a 200-meter sprint in Milan wearing a silver Phantom of the Opera-style mask. (It slipped over his eyes and he was disqualified for stepping out of his lane.) Or his appearance last year on FOX's Man vs. Beast, when he raced against a giraffe (he won) and then a zebra (he lost). "I think if I could get hold of that zebra right now," says Crawford, 26, "I could take him."

But first things first. At the upcoming Athens Olympics, he faces a showdown against defending Olympic gold medalist Maurice Greene—as well as his own training partner Justin Gatlin—in the Games' glamor race, the 100-meter sprint. Though Greene and Gatlin finished ahead of him in the blistering 100 final at the Olympic trials, Crawford owns the fastest time at the distance this year (9.88 seconds). Not coincidentally, the free-spirited "Cheetah Man"—as Crawford began calling himself before the FOX special—has finally embraced the virtues of training and the art of self-discipline. "He has awesome potential, and now that he has buckled down we're beginning to see it," says ESPN track and field commentator Larry Rawson. "He definitely has gold medal potential."

No news to Crawford's family and friends back in tiny Van Wyck, S.C., where his mother, Sylvia, 44, a sales associate at Home Depot, raised Shawn and his sisters Takelia, 24, and Christoria, 22. "He used to always run from a whuppin'," says cousin Chadric Crawford, 28, who remembers the 8-year-old Shawn eluding one of his uncles after some childish mischief. "They never could catch him, and he'd be cryin' and runnin' and cryin' and runnin'. So when he finally got tired they'd never whup him because we'd all be laughing. He had no technique but you could never catch him."

That's been the pattern for much of Crawford's career: a world of talent, scattershot direction. "It takes a long time to break a wild mustang," says the bachelor, who says his off-track pursuits include "music, fishing, women...but sometimes the order changes." Raw speed was good enough to earn the A student a track scholarship to Clemson, where he won two NCAA titles in the 200 despite a relationship with track coaches that was so turbulent he was twice booted from the team. "I do have a problem with authority," Crawford admits. "I have trouble with somebody giving me orders." After turning pro in 2000, he moved back home to train again with his high school coach and mentor Michael Gordon—a move that stalled his career. "Shawn stayed with what he was comfortable with," says Gordon, 43. "But in order to get faster, you gotta train with fast people."

In November he reluctantly moved 150 miles to Raleigh, N.C., to train with Trevor Graham, former coach of Marion Jones. He chafed under Graham's stringent six-day-a-week training regimen (the coach doesn't accept excuses for lateness, absence or skipping weight training). But after a month the runner began to see the improvement in his performance, especially at shorter distances like the 100. "He's taught me the art of sprinting," says Crawford, "how to get the most out of each movement in the race."

Crawford says he has also benefited enormously from training with rising star Gatlin, 22, one of his chief rivals. "He's a cool dude; we support each other like brothers," says Crawford of Gatlin, against whom he will race in the 100 and 200 in Athens. (Gatlin returns the compliment, saying, "It's us against everyone else.") "I don't have to worry about hyping myself up at competitions," says Crawford. "I'm already going head to head against one of the best in the world every day."

Pam Lambert. Michaele Ballard in Raleigh and Jeff Truesdell in Orlando

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