Even in his prime, Carl Lewis was never much of a starter. Whether coming out of the blocks or emerging from the cocoon of diversions he wraps around himself each winter (reporting for radio shows, taking acting lessons, penning his autobiography) Lewis has always taken a little longer than other sprinters to reach full speed. Not that it has mattered. At the only end of the track that counts—the finish—Lewis has proved himself to be the greatest track and field athlete of all time, the greatest sprinter, the greatest jumper. No one else is even close.
What, then, are we to make of Lewis's 1995 season? He will turn 34 on July 1. When the end of his career does come, as it soon must, it may resemble this past month. On April 8 Lewis ran an impressive-sounding 9.94 at the Texas Relays, but the race was wind aided and he finished third. On April 15 Lewis won the long jump at the Mount SAC Relays, but his leap of 26'8�" was his shortest winning distance in 14 years. Last Friday afternoon, at the Drake Relays, Lewis lost again, this time to a 19-year-old UTEP sophomore named Obadele Thompson and an Oregon freshman named Patrick Johnson. "I was looking for his usual finish," said Thompson afterward, "but it wasn't there."
Lewis's time of 10.32 left him more than a meter behind Thompson's 10.19. "I just didn't feel sharp," Lewis said, sounding less confident than usual.
As Lewis explains it, the big difference this year is not physical but mental. "When you've been to 14 Mount SAC Relays or 13 of this meet or 11 of this, you don't approach it the same way," he said before Drake. "I have a difficult time getting focused for some of the meets I've been to so many times. But the one thing I've kept is my enthusiasm for training and for major meets."
So Lewis's first true test will come in June, at the national championships in Sacramento, where he hopes to make the U.S. team for this summer's world championships in G�teborg, Sweden. Those who know Lewis best insist that physically he is as good as ever. "I don't see anything in practice that he can't do now that he did before," says Tom Tellez, who has been coaching Lewis for 16 years.
If there is a sign that Lewis is feeling his age, it is that he started working out later this year than usual, in early January. "He was just beat," Tellez says. "He took time off to get himself rejuvenated. But I think he looks better in practice than he has in a long time. It's just a matter of getting up for meets."
In some quarters Lewis has already been written off. Olympic champion Linford Christie pointed out last summer that it had been three years since Lewis broke 10 seconds without an aiding wind. Last year's top sprinter, Dennis Mitchell, told the Chicago Tribune last summer, "Right now, all the other sprinters in the world aren't worried about Carl at all."
Maintenance has always figured in Lewis's calculations. He has absorbed in his blood and his bones the paradox that Tellez teaches—that you run fast by relaxing and maintaining speed, not by trying to accelerate to the finish. Relax and maintain. That's the essence of sprinting. It is also the essence of hanging in for the long run.
We know how Carl Lewis starts. Now, how will he finish?