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At 2:55 p.m. M.D.T. last Sunday in Colorado Springs, Calvin Smith leaned forward, his hands on the warm, blue-gray Air Force Academy track, and gently shook out first one leg, then the other. When both hamstrings felt right, he placed his spikes carefully against the blocks and brought his hands back behind the starting line. He crouched, looked down and waited for the National Sports Festival 100-meter dash to begin.
The paramount question is always the same for Smith at times like this. John Mitchell, his coach at Alabama, where Smith, 22, is a senior majoring in public relations, puts it clearly: "He's as fast as human beings are made. It all comes down to whether he catches the gun and gets off well."
This is a slightly odd problem for Smith to have, because he is only 5'9" and 140. Usually it is the tall sprinter, the Carl Lewis or Tommie Smith or Steve Williams, who takes 50 meters to uncoil and hit full stride. But this season Smith has been the one chasing after quick starters like his Alabama teammate, Emmit King, whom he couldn't quite catch in the NCAA 100 a month ago. King won that one by three inches, 10.15 seconds to 10.16. Now, Smith told himself not to just stand up and run but to drive out of the blocks.
Smith caught the gun. He didn't jump it, or even anticipate it. He simply got away with everyone else. "A decent start," he would later call it. At 25 meters there seemed no clear leader in the eight-man field. At 35 the green-clad Smith began to edge ahead. By 60 he was running as he never had before and pulling away from everyone else.
Smith wasn't exactly savoring it. He had his mind on his task. "I've been working on not letting my arms drop down into wide swings, but keeping them up in short strokes," he said later. "After 80 meters or so, I concentrated on that. Near the end I was tired, but it was a good tired."
It was a magnificent tired. It had earned him a world record of 9.93 seconds, .02 faster than the 15-year-old standard set by Jim Hines in the 1968 Olympics. In second was Bernard Jackson of Tempe, Ariz. in 10.19. The race had, luckily, been run during a lull in the frisky Colorado breeze; the wind reading was 1.38 meters per second. If it's more than 2.0 mps, it voids any record. Calvin Smith, sweet, shy Calvin Smith, was the world's fastest human.
Smith danced happily for a few seconds and then endured a swamping by cameramen and reporters, but as soon as he got a moment to think straight, he said a little prayer. "Help me, God," he said. "Help me to stay me."
The me he wished to remain is a modest man, given to none of the braggadocio that marks many sprinters. Indeed, while he was perfectly happy to have caused a sensation of historic proportions, he took essentially a private message from it. "I haven't been having the best of seasons," he said. "I got second in both the 100 and 200 in the NCAA. I got third in the TAC races. I felt through all that that I was behind schedule, that I should be doing better. Now I'm back on track. But just because of this race, I don't suddenly feel I'm any better than the rest of the world's top runners."
Asked whether he could go faster, Smith said, "I feel I have a good chance of running this time again, but lowering it...I don't know."
The men's 100 had benefited from an electric atmosphere generated by the preceding race. In that one, Evelyn Ashford, who'd been beaten soundly a week before by East Germany's world-record holder, Marlies Göhr, in a dual meet in the Los Angeles Coliseum, had been running, as she put it, "to get my confidence back. I wanted to go under 11 seconds [Göhr's record, set on June 8, was 10.81], to at least give her something to think about before the World Championships in Helsinki in August."