Athlete of the Century: Carl Lewis

If there were a gold medal for cockiness, he would have won it too. But behind all the flash was one of the fastest men ever.

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  1. In the length of time it’s going to take you to read this sentence, which should be just under ten seconds, Carl Lewis was able to bust out of the starting blocks at a track meet and run 100 meters at full speed, his thighs pumping like pistons, his arms slicing back and forth through the air. Think about it: He’d sprint the length of a city block in the same amount of time it would take you to pour a cup of coffee and carry it to the kitchen table. Then he’d catch his breath, head over to the long jump area, take a running start, plant his right foot on the long jump board, and propel himself at least 28 feet through the air—about the width of a two-lane highway.

    Stand at your local neighborhood bar and jaw all you want about the glamorous baseball, football, and basketball stars from Texas. Shout out your precious statistics about who struck out what hitters, who scored which winning touchdowns, and who hit how many shots at the buzzer. The fact is, when it comes to individual athletic superiority, few people in the world can touch long, lean, and impossibly fast Carl Lewis, who came to Texas in 1979 to attend the University of Houston, immediately qualified for the U.S. Olympic team at age eighteen, and dominated his sport—all of sports, actually—for the next sixteen years.

    In world-class track and field, where a single slightly strained ligament can mean the end of a career, sixteen years is an eternity. Yet staying healthy was the least of Lewis’ feats: He mastered b...