The Washington Post
For Dix, It’s No Sprint to the Finish
The night before the start of this month’s NCAA track and field championships, Florida State sprint sensation Walter Dix woke his elder brother with a late-night phone call. Dix had something on his mind, and it couldn’t wait.
As Alex Dix, a volunteer track and field coach at a small Florida college, stared in disbelief at his clock — it was 3 a.m. on the East Coast — he wondered what could be distressing his little brother at such a late hour back in his hotel room in Sacramento.
Was the younger Dix, who will compete tonight at the U.S. track and field championships in Indianapolis, feeling jittery about the championships, at which he would become the first athlete in 38 years to win three national collegiate titles in the 100 and 200 meters and 4x100 relay?
Was he wrangling with the issue of whether to leave school early to sign a major professional contract that some agents have estimated could net $6 million over the next six years?
Turns out, Walter Dix was indeed upset and nervous but, his brother said, “he didn’t ask me about track at all.” Instead, he probed Alex Dix about another matter entirely: the career consequences should he change his major from social work to sociology or psychology.
If that sounds like a strange subject for conversation under the circumstances, it was.
Nobody who has seen Dix run this season expects him to need a job outside of the sport through at least the 2012 Olympics in London. But those close to Dix say he is unlikely to follow any traditional or expected course. A prominent agent described Dix, who has run the fastest times in the world this year in the 100 (9.93 seconds) and 200 (19.69, an NCAA record), as the nation’s most promising young sprinter as well as the “biggest mystery at the NCAAs.”
A day after Dix’s Florida State teammate Ricardo Chambers, a considerably less acclaimed 400 runner, announced he was leaving school a year early, and Dix’s sprint coach, Ken Harnden, hinted that Dix would do the same (“This,” Harnden said, “is something he needs to do”), Dix said he would do no such thing.
“Everybody knows when it’s time for them to go,” Dix said by phone from Tallahassee last week. “You have to do what you want to do, not what other people want you to do. . . . My friends, most of them, say go pro. . . . I made the decision to graduate first.”
Besides his degree, Dix also wants the collegiate record in the 100. Those two priorities have shaped his unusual approach to this summer.
To finish school by fall, rather than next spring, he intends to focus on his class work rather than sprinting in the coming months (he says he has a 2.9 grade-point average and will need more credits, not fewer, if he changes his major). He said his busy summer likely will leave him no time to prepare adequately for or attend the 2007 track and field world championships in Osaka, Japan — the last major event before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — even if he makes the team this weekend. (The top three finishers in each event qualify.)
Furthermore, he said, he is so intent on nabbing the NCAA 100 record he might compete only in the preliminary rounds of the event in Indianapolis — surely disappointing the track cognoscenti who can’t wait to see him run against some of the world’s best.
Dix said if he were to surpass Ato Boldon’s collegiate 100 record (9.92 seconds) in, say, today’s opening round, he likely would pack up and go home, skipping the later rounds of the 100 and the 200.
“A lot of people might be upset,” Alex Dix said, “but I told him, this is your life.”
Said Walter Dix: “I haven’t really planned on competing at worlds. . . . I’m trying just to go after the 100 record. [If I get it] I’ll probably hang it up after that. I just know when it’s time to stop.”
Nobody claims to have figured out Walter Dix, but Florida State Coach Bob Braman offers this insight: Dix cares more about his place in history than his place in any given race. Coming out of Coral Springs (Fla.) High School in 2004, he was considered the best sprinter in the nation. As a senior, he had obliterated the state records in the 100 and 200.
He won the NCAA title in the 100 as a freshman and, after an injury-plagued sophomore year, managed to pull out the 200. This season provided a breakthrough. Dix, who dramatically improved his start, surpassed Joe DeLoach’s 19year-old record in the 200 (19.75) during a meet in Gainesville, Fla., with a time that is the sixth-fastest ever.
“I thought I’d get the 100 record first,” Dix said. “When I came across the finish line, I was shocked to see that. I knew it was fast, but I didn’t know it would be a 19-6.”
Dix came from a family of track stars. Alex, 27, William, 22, and Walter, 21, all learned the sport by following their father, an assistant high school principal and track coach, to daily practices. A defining moment for Walter Dix came during a social studies class in middle school when his teacher played a videotape of Jesse Owens performing in front of Adolf Hitler.
“Even though he was in that environment,” Walter Dix said, “he had no fear.”
Dix’s coaches say he took Owens’s strong and subdued style to heart, refusing to adopt the chestthumping and finger-waving common among the top sprinters. “He told us on a number of occasions,” Harnden said, “that Jesse Owens never did those things.”
After Dix got the 200 national record, Harnden recalled, “he claps his hands, walks off the track and goes to the cool-down track.”
There is, after all, so much more to do. Dix plans to do it all — on his own timeline.
“I really want to be the best ever,” Dix said. “I want to hold the world record in the 100 and 200, and if another world record came along, that’d be nice.”