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"Ladies and gentlemen, with one jump remaining, Carl Lewis is in second place."
The words boomed over the P.A. system in Madison Square Garden, on a Friday night late last January, and the crowd fell silent. Lewis hadn't lost in the long jump in nearly three years. Larry Myricks, who had beaten him two of four times in '81 and then watched Lewis shoot past him, had just taken the lead with a leap of 27'6", and Lewis had burned as he watched long jumper Jason Grimes rush to congratulate him. He knew how badly many athletes in the arena wanted to see him fail.
Lewis likes to say he competes against no one but himself, that no other athlete, no outside pressure, can dictate his performance. But let him, just for a moment, get behind....
He stood at the head of the runway, brooding, licking his lips, buried inside himself and yet at the same time drawing all the energy and emotion from the air. With his sister bracing a section of runway board with her feet, he flowed down the runway, left the floor about a millimeter from the Plasticine and thrashed through the air for a world indoor record of 28'10¼". He leaped onto the track in celebration and nearly got trampled by a group of runners in an 800-meter race.
A similar thing happened during his studies at the Warren Robertson Theatre Workshop in Manhattan. For three weeks he rehearsed the part of Gale Sayers in a scene from Brian's Song, and then when Robertson invited 50 people, including Lewis's mother, and turned on the camera, Lewis did it twice as well as he'd ever done it in class. "Every detail I had suggested to him in three weeks—things that seasoned actors, through nervousness and ego, forget instantly—he remembered and applied under pressure," says Robertson, who is Douglas's cousin and has coached Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton and James Earl Jones. "I couldn't believe anyone who had never acted could be that focused. He's got a honing instinct that eliminates all excess and waste and goes straight to the essence.
"He touches an audience for the same reason Travolta does: that balance between the aggressive side and the receptive, sensitive side. It fulfills the need for both that we have as an audience. Carl may not think he's vulnerable, but you can feel a sensitive side in his presence.
"There's a containment about him. He commits everything he's been containing into the act. He could become the first great actor who was an athlete, because he's secure enough to risk."
He must risk. He must wait sometimes until the last jump to uncork the record beater; he must heighten the Olympic pressure by huckstering; he must weave through interstate traffic, blinking high beams on dawdlers. The easier it comes to the child on the limb, the more he must chance—Look, one foot!—the more he must tickle dozing fate to make sure he controls her. How could he be distinct if each step were predictable?
They must be controlled risks, of course. The BMW has a Fuzzbuster to warn him of police radar. His speedometer was broken the night he raced Cleve 270 miles between Fort Worth and Houston; at 125 mph, Cleve was leaning out the window of his Porsche, screaming out the numbers to his brother. They chopped more than two hours off a five-hour trip.