Publish date:

The Fastest Doubleheader Ever

In a 15-minute span Evelyn Ashford and Calvin Smith set world records for 100 meters at the National Sports Festival

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."

She did that and more. Like Smith, Ashford isn't the fastest starter, but like Smith, she caught a good one. Then she just tore on down the track. "I wasn't thinking about anything; I just ran," she said. "I didn't seem to wake up until the last 20 meters. When I crossed the line, I thought, 'That was nothing special. Maybe 11.1.' " Her "nothing special" was 10.79, a world record. Her wind was a legal .56 mps. When she heard the time, she collapsed. "I'm stunned," she said. "Just stunned...stunned."

Later, somewhat recovered, she said, "It hasn't sunk in yet." Which occasioned thoughts of what could happen to her when it really does. Might she explode? "I have imagined getting the gold medal next year, and I probably won't react like I expect to then, either," she said.

An hour earlier Ashford did what she had really come to the Sports Festival for—anchor a world-record try in the 4 x 100-meter relay for her teammates Diane Williams, Alice Brown and Chandra Cheeseborough. In defeating East Germany's team the week before, they had come within .03 of the G.D.R.'s 41.60 record set in the Moscow Olympics.

Racing in Colorado Springs as an added entry—though they are the national team, under Sports Festival rules they would normally have been split up to run for their respective regions—they passed hellishly but sprinted like the devil in between and came within .01 of the mark with a 41.61. It was, of course, an American-record performance. "And we'll get a lot better," said Ashford. "We have work to do on coming out of those exchange zones with both the baton and a good head of steam."

Three sprint races, three records. Never before had the two 100-meter records fallen in one day, although on the afternoon that Hines ran his 9.95, Barbara Ferrell of the U.S. and Irena Szewinska of Poland tied the women's world mark. Sunday's crowd of 15,500 was ecstatic, the sprinters were ecstatic. But over all hung a simple question. The Air Force Academy is 7,200 feet above sea level. The air there offers fractionally less resistance to sprinters shouldering through it than does the air in Indianapolis or Modesto, to mention a couple of places where Carl Lewis has, respectively, defeated Calvin Smith and run 100 meters in 9.97.

The new record holders were unconcerned about the question of altitude. "Hey, it was a world record," said Ashford. "Nobody ever got through 100 meters faster. I finally got perfect conditions; I realize that. A pretty day, nice mountains, nice people. Sure, altitude helps. I can't deny that my two best times were done up here [her previous American record of 10.90 was set in Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Center track two years ago], but I can run as well at low altitude."

Smith wouldn't go quite that far. "The altitude has something to do with my time," he said, "but I'm happy with it. The most noticeable effect of altitude on me is that it makes my eyes water. And you have to remember that the record I broke was set at altitude, in Mexico City [7,350 feet above sea level]."

And what of Lewis, the man most expected to set this record, and the marks in the 200 and long jump as well? He had said he preferred not to long-jump in the Sports Festival, because if he should at last break Bob Beamon's wondrous record of 29'2½", his jump would be viewed as less legitimate than if he did it at sea level. He had planned on running the 100 and the sprint relay. But after reportedly straining a leg muscle in the week before the Festival he withdrew from all competition in Colorado.

"I had considered not running here," said Smith. "I had had a lot of races lately and needed rest more than anything." But Smith's Athletic Attic Club coach, Terry Long, reminded him that the Sports Festival is hardly savage competition. "We figured it'd be low key and loose," said Long, "the kind of place we might set up a big race. Then when Carl pulled out, that's all anyone seemed to want to talk about. There was no media pressure on Calvin, none of the usual wild hype."

The wildness all came after the race, with everyone yelling, "What would Lewis have done?"

"Had he been in there, the greatest 100 of all time would have been even greater," said Long, "but it was one of those days when Calvin was on. He'd run an awesome third leg on the South's relay team an hour and a half earlier. He would have been tough for Lewis to handle today."

What explains this remarkable record-breaking performance? Make no mistake, Smith is a splendid athlete. He beat Lewis twice last year. He was ranked second in the world in the 100 and 200 for 1982 and ran a wind-aided 9.91 100 in Karl-Marx-Stadt, East Germany last year. Smith also ran a 45.2 400 on Alabama's second-place 4 x 400-meter relay team in this year's NCAA meet. "That kind of strength, with his speed running the turn, seems to compute out to a great 200," says Mitchell.

It was Smith's range of abilities that probably kept him from better races early this year. "He was a key part of the Alabama team, doing the 100,200 and both relays," says Long. "By the end of the college season he was tired, but Calvin is such a team man, he wouldn't have it any other way."

Especially not now, when it seems that all the racing he did this spring trained him to a new peak. "That high-level work can be beneficial—if you survive it," says Long. "Now that Calvin has rested, I think his legs are coming back. Well, Lord, I guess there's no question about that, is there?"

Both Smith and Long credited Lewis, even in absentia, with setting the climate for this record. "Carl's sprinting and jumping have made it like the time when the four-minute mile was first broken and suddenly it seemed like everyone could do it," said Long. "He's busted down the door of people's perceived limits. He's raised the level of what can be expected in his events."

Smith is the only athletic child among the five sons and three daughters raised by Mrs. Luretha Smith of Bolton, Miss., which is a suburb of Clinton, which is a suburb of Jackson. "Calvin is so dad-gum quiet, there aren't a whole lot of fancy stories about him," says Mitchell. "The nicest compliment we get comes whenever we meet coaches who have had him on overseas trips. They always say, 'You got any more like him?' He's down-to-earth. He's religious. He has a lot of respect for his momma. He is, and will continue to be, unaffected by what he does, and when you talk to him about it, he does a lot of listening."

Smith plans a September wedding, to Melanie Patterson, and then will stay at Alabama into the Olympic year to get his degree and train with King under the eye of sprint Coach Wayne Williams.

But first there is the matter of the world championships in Helsinki. "I agree with Carl that his best competition will come from the American sprinters," says Smith. "I usually come on strong in the summer [and Lewis has been vulnerable late in the season], so everything will be exciting from now on."

Perhaps that sounded a touch too cocky to him, so he put a layer of Calvin Smith perspective on it. "I came to this meet feeling that I couldn't run a good time," he said. "I wasn't on, the season had been discouraging. All last week, I was thinking about why I wasn't running at my best. The more I kind of sifted things, the more I wondered if maybe it was that God was putting me through a test, letting me be disappointed to see if I would turn away. So I knew the thing to do was not to be disappointed. And then I came here, and the day was right, and there was Evelyn setting her record, and the crowd shouting for that got me excited. But I really didn't try for a world record. I just tried my best to remember what I'd worked on, and one came. So it was a test. I know it was. And the lesson is that world record or not, it won't sink in. I'm not going to get a big head. I'm going to stay me."


Smith (left, in green) and Ashford (above, in red) both got off to better starts than they normally do and then—poof!—disappeared into thin air.


After their uplifting L.A. win, (from left) Williams, Brown, Ashford and Cheeseborough decided to go for a record in the Rockies.


With her blazing anchor leg, Ashford clinched the U.S. relay mark.


Ashford felt her run was "nothing special" and was so stunned by her time she collapsed.


July 3: a banner day for Smith and the U.S.