They do this shit every year.
CBS was all set to downplay the sprint events at this week’s NCAA outdoor track-and-field championships. The 100-meter dash had already been moved away from the final day of competition and out of the network’s live-coverage plans.
It took Walter Dix only 19.69 seconds to change everything.
Dix broke the NCAA record in the 200-meter dash at the East Regional in Gainesville last Saturday. He also established himself as the favorite in the 100 and helped keep Florida State’s top-ranked 4x100 relay looking invincible.
“Single-handedly with that performance at regionals, Walter has changed the entire focus of the meet,” CBS analyst Ato Boldon said. “Of course, now he is going to be the show.”
Dix will have to hold up under the pressure to make history and lead the Seminoles to their second consecutive NCAA title.
“That doesn’t even get in Walt’s head,” FSU coach Bob Braman said. “That is nothing for him. Walt is in a different world on the track. He is the guy in the phone booth on the street corner with all the cars going by and all that noise.”
Former LSU star Xavier Carter wore the cape and tights last year, becoming the first athlete since Jesse Owens to win four national titles in the same meet. A lucrative endorsement deal with Nike took Carter off the collegiate stage and left the spotlight to Dix, who will try to become the first to double in the 100 and 200 since Justin Gatlin in 2002. But winning seldom is enough to satisfy Dix.
“I’m trying to be the best ever,” said Dix, a junior from Coral Springs. “And the only way to do it is to break records.”
Even though he was running his sixth race in just over 24 hours, Dix made history at the East Regional. He came around the curve and ran away from the field, eclipsing Joe DeLoach’s collegiate mark of 19.75 seconds. The seventh-fastest time in history had head U.S. Olympic track coach Bubba Thornton’s phone buzzing within seconds.
“It’s not easy when you have this incredible talent because everyone expects you to set a record or win every time out,” said Thornton, who also serves as the head coach at Texas. “I think he’s done a great job handling it, doing the work and letting it come to him.”
If the conditions fall in Dix’s favor, Boldon’s collegiate record of 9.90 seconds in the 100 could be within reach at the national meet, which begins Wednesday in Sacramento, Calif. Dix set the school record at the regional, crossing the line in 10.05 seconds despite a slight headwind and an all-too-familiar mediocre start out of the blocks.
Dix already has won four national titles and could join an exclusive club by doubling in the 100 and 200. There have been just seven doubles in those events since the NCAA went to meters for good in 1976, and none since Gatlin became the first to do it twice. Harvey Glance accomplished the feat with Auburn in 1976 and then went on to capture gold with the U.S. 4x100 relay at the Olympics in Montreal.
“To go out and deliver when the lights are on you, that’s the toughest part,” said Glance, who is the head coach at Alabama and will serve as the sprints/hurdles coach for the U.S. Olympic team next year in Beijing. “You have to respect your opponents. They’re not going to lie down and just let you have it.”
As news of Dix’s record spread to the Mideast Regional in Columbia, Mo., Glance wasn’t surprised.
“I’ve never seen anyone with such a burst,” Glance said. “I’ve seen guys with acceleration and I’ve seen sprinters get out and sustain, but it just seems as though he can hit a gear at any point in a race.”
Out of the blocks
FSU sprints coach Ken Harnden marked each meter out of the blocks with tape and then had Dix’s start in the 100 and 200 photographed during a workout at FSU’s Mike Long Track. The frame-by-frame shots helped Harnden get his point across.
In the 200, Dix used solid form and covered the first 10 meters on the curve in less than eight steps. But he needed nine steps to cover the same distance at the start in the 100. Side-to-side motion from his hands pulled his body slightly off course.
The start. It’s the only question mark that hangs around Dix, who heads into the national meet tied with Clemson sophomore Travis Padgett for the best time in the 100. LSU sophomore Trindon Holliday (10.07), Arkansas sophomore J-Mee Samuels (10.13), Wisconsin senior Demi Omole (10.19) and FSU’s Greg Bolden (10.21) and Michael Ray Garvin (10.21) are also among the contenders.
“I know if I get a good start, I’m ahead of the game,” said Dix, who won the national championship in the 100 his freshman year, ending the program’s 24-year outdoor title drought. “I’m not expected to get a good start in any hundred-meter dash.”
Boldon, who won the title in the 100 with UCLA in a meet-record 9.92 seconds in 1996, said Dix needs to avoid running himself out of the race at the start.
“His mechanics are not 100 percent,” said Boldon, who won four Olympic medals representing Trinidad and Tobago, including silver in the 100 at the Sydney Games in 2000. “He doesn’t do the same things every time. He’s never the first to react.”
Harnden insists Dix’s reaction time isn’t the problem. He said Dix has been making progress in the attempt to duplicate his start from the 200.
“But we haven’t done it enough to where it’s natural,” Harnden said. “So when it comes crunch-time, he tends to revert back to the old stuff. It’s a learning process.”
Running into history
Following up his sweep in the 200 last year, Dix captured the title again at the NCAA indoor championships in March. He stumbled out of the block in the 60-meter dash final but came back to run a leg on FSU’s 4x400 relay in the last event. The Seminoles were unable to pull out the team title, finishing five points behind Wisconsin.
But the Dix legend continued to grow.
“I’ve always thought of him as a tremendous competitor,” Thornton said. “It may not seem like a big thing, but it was really huge for me when he ran a leg on the mile relay for his team at indoor nationals.”
The quarter-mile earned Dix his 12th All-American honor, one short of Walter McCoy’s record in the men’s program. But Dix still prefers to keep a low profile. He was reluctant to grant interview requests this week and tried to stay off his cell phone. But he did get a playful message on Facebook from former teammate and Rhodes Scholar Garrett Johnson, who claimed he wasn’t impressed yet.
Dix has already won over Ato Boldon.
“If you had asked me two weeks ago, I don’t know if I would have thought long, glamorous career,” Boldon said. "But now that he’s shown me that he’s capable of running that kind of a time with nobody next to him, I think a lot of people are going to have to look at where he is differently.
“He’s just at the beginning of his career, and that makes it a very, very difficult prospect for anybody facing him in the next five to 10 years.”
A pro contract is in his future. But when? Dix has said another year in collegiate track sets up perfectly for the Olympics. But he still leaves wiggle room when asked whether he’s definitely coming back for his senior season.
“It’s looking like that now,” Dix said.
“We’ve decided not to talk about it until the meet is over,” Braman said. “The agents and people out there who are going to come after him have been very good about not bothering us. They’re just saying, ‘Hey, don’t let us read about it in the paper. Please involve us. Let us have a shot.’ What he’ll have to weigh is will one more year affect his market value? But Walt is a historian. He’s got records he wants to break.”
And that’s not entirely in Dix’s control. An ill-timed brisk headwind in Sacramento could force Dix to settle for championships, leaving him unquenched.
“If I don’t accomplish it, of course I won’t have that feeling of (success) most people may have after winning NCAAs,” Dix said. “The reason I’m going in there is to break these records.”