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Oscar Pistorius steals spotlight with Olympic debut

LONDON – After six years of training, Oscar Pistorius crouched in the starting blocks poised to make history. It was a serious moment, punctuated by years of work and court battles and controversy. And in what should have been a time of focus and intensity, Pistorius was crouched in the blocks, doing the unexpected.

He was smiling. The first amputee ever to compete in track and field at the Olympics was overcome with joy.

"I've worked for six years to try and make the 400-meter semifinal," Pistorius said. "To come out here today is just an unbelievable experience. I found myself smiling in the starting blocks."

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"I've got goose bumps now and it's been an hour since I raced."

A double-amputee who was born without fibulae in each of his legs, Pistorius finished second in his heat of the 400 meters and qualified for the semifinals of the event, coming in at 45.44 seconds – his second-fastest time of the year – despite pulling back to conserve energy at the end. It was easily the most breathtaking moment of an eventful morning – from LaShawn Merritt's deflating hamstring injury to blazing U.S. times in the 100-meter heats.

Yet it was Pistorius and his carbon-fiber blades that had a capacity Olympic Stadium crowd thundering with applause usually only reserved for the likes of Jamaica's Usain Bolt or Great Britain's Jessica Ennis. The electricity of the moment turned an average 400-meter heat into what almost seemed like a medal event. Pistorius was introduced and raised his arms to wild clicks from a section of nearby photographers, then crouched into the blocks with that smile.

And he did what other runners have been noting about him over the last year – he ran a good race.

Coming from the rear of the pack from Lane 6 after his typical slow start, Pistorius steadily moved forward near the midway point of the race and surfaced just behind Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic. Pacing himself off Santos down the stretch, Pistorius finished .4 seconds back and had the qualification he had so desperately worked for. With his family in the stands, including his 89-year-old grandmother, Pistorius' 45.44 ultimately came in as the 16th best time of the 400 heats. It was a performance even Santos could admire.

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"I know Oscar was the protagonist in the race, but I love him," Santos said through a translator. "He's a good racer. … I felt inspiration to see him – emotion and inspiration."

"It takes a lot of courage," added Grenada's Kirani James, who won his own 400-meter heat. "[He has] a lot of confidence in what he does."

With Pistorius drawing Lane 5 in his semifinal heat, the world is just waiting to see how fast he can go. Had he kicked out the final 20 meters of his first heat, he might have approached the 45-second barrier, which he has yet to penetrate. But with a fast track and a boisterous race crowd, he may finally break it Saturday night.

"You get so much energy from the crowd," Pistorius said. "… I believe the track is fast but the crowd is what is really making it that much more enjoyable.

"My coaching staff have done a great job to let me peak at the right time. I've had a lot of faith and trust in them. I couldn't have hoped for anything better."

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