If you look closely at the hallway carpet just outside Casey Combest's bedroom, you can see an odd pattern. Embedded in the beige rug, right down the center of the narrow, 19-foot hallway, are footprints that lead past the kitchen of the ground floor apartment in Henderson, Ky., that Combest shares with his mom, Shannon Bugg, and his four-year-old sister, Brooklyn. Each night before he goes to sleep, Casey, one of the nation's fastest high school sprinters, clears his sister's toys out of the way, puts his racing blocks against the back wall and, with Brooklyn's help—"Weady, set...gooo!—practices 20 race starts.
The footprints end just before the wall, as if Combest has magically run right through an impenetrable barrier. In many ways he has. Combest, 18, is a track and field anomaly. He is 5'7" and weighs 135 pounds, has never lifted weights and trains on a crumbling cement track. He also happens to be white in a country that has produced exactly one world-class white sprinter in the last 43 years: 1997 world indoor 200-meter champion Kevin Little.
"I am driven because I want to be something special," says Combest, who will run for Kentucky next year. "I have to be driven. Every race I run in, I am the shortest, lightest and whitest guy on the track."
He's usually the fastest, too. Combest, a student at Owensboro High, 100 miles west of Louisville, has won five state sprint titles and set the national high school indoor record for 60 meters. Last year he helped the U.S. 4x100 team to a silver medal in the world junior championships with a hand-timed leg of 10.1. His fastest official time in the 100 meters is 10.34. (The high school record, set by Derrick Florence of Galveston, Texas, in 1986, is 10.13.)
Combest's combustible starts are equal parts power and precision. With his short, explosive legs—he can dunk a basketball—Combest creates such rapid turnover that after three steps he's at full speed. That kind of acceleration attracted college football programs such as Notre Dame and Nebraska, though Combest had never played the game, as well as physiologists who want to study his muscle composition. "I said no to football and the scientists," says Combest. "I ain't no freak."
After Combest won his first national indoor tide, in the 60 meters in 1998, no less an authority than Carl Lewis said, "I have been running track for over 20 years, and he has one of the best starts I have ever seen. The sky is the limit for [him]." On March 14 in Columbus, Ohio, Combest set the national high school indoor mark for 60 meters with a 6.57. It was the 10th fastest time in the world to that point in 1999, and afterward former 100-meter world-record holder Leroy Burrell called Combest's performance "fundamentally perfect." Two weeks later Tennessee's Leonard Scott won the NCAA Division I national 60-meter title with a time of 6.58.
"Casey could change the sport of track and field by bringing back the white sprinter," says Owensboro coach Bob O'Brien, who trains Combest with interval workouts normally done by college sprinters. Adds sprinting guru John Smith, who coaches current 60-meter world-record holder Maurice Greene, "Basically, white sprinters in the U.S. have bought into the notion that they can't run, which is bull——. Casey's earned his stripes in the sport because he forces you to look at him as a competitor and not as a color."
The person with the best perspective on race in racing may be Combest himself. He shrugs, rubs his crew cut and says, "I don't look at race. You're not supposed to. I mean, it's almost the year 2000, time to get past all that." What defines Combest, then, is not his size or pigment but his ability to work tirelessly toward one goal. "My life is simple," he says. "All I want is to be fast."
After he does his 20 starts, his nighttime ritual continues in bed, where Combest listens to a homemade tape of starter's cadences. Then he might study the technique of Armin Hary, the German sprinter who was nicknamed the Thief of Starts after he won gold in the 100 at the 1960 Games. Sometimes before meets Combest will even put on his uniform, lie in bed and visualize what he wants to accomplish. "Every day people ask me if I'm going to the Olympics, and it's definitely something I want to do," says Combest, who, while he may still be too green next year to make the U.S. team for Sydney, has a good start toward 2004. "People are going to remember me. I'm sure of it. And it won't be because I'm white but because I'm fast."