SI Vault
Frank Deford
May 22, 1967
Sunshaded Tommie Smith of San Jose State is too tall to start well, but once he uncoils his big frame he relaxes into a smooth, giant stride that brings him home faster than any before him
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May 22, 1967

He Is Built For Chasing Beyondness

Sunshaded Tommie Smith of San Jose State is too tall to start well, but once he uncoils his big frame he relaxes into a smooth, giant stride that brings him home faster than any before him

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Trapped in Tommie Smith (see cover) is a talent struggling for recognition in his own land and the body of a man of 6'6" or even 6'8" locked within a 6'2" frame. Perhaps those are the reasons why Smith runs so fast, why he has set seemingly insurmountable records in the 220 and 200 meters, why someday soon he must surely establish corresponding records in the quarter mile and 400 meters. He runs, in a sense, almost out of his skin. He is, without doubt, the fastest oving human the world has ever known, but the same elements that help to propel him so fast also serve to impede him, making his achievements all the more amazing.

Tommie Smith, in a word, does not burst. He can only uncoil after he comes out of the starting blocks. His every race is a finishing kick, all the way, great liquid strides, faster and faster, in a relentless drive. For unlike other runners, Smith reaches no peak; he is accelerating to the end. His races are not, then, man against man or even man against clock. They are only races against distance, for he does not win so much as he catches up—can he catch the man ahead of him or will the tape loom first? Tommie Smith is the great chase.

"I run on top," is the simple way he describes his style. This is apt, for it suggests, as much as is possible, that he flies. It is a beautiful movement, and he is so flawlessly graceful, so insouciantly relaxed, that those who see him for the first time invariably feel that he is loafing. In one way, he really is. Smith treats his body more as a fine instrument, to be tuned, than as a roaring machine that must be pounded and tooled into form.

"I think if Tommie practiced like me or Lee Evans," says Ken Shackelford, Smith's fellow senior and quarter-miler at San Jose State, "it might break him down. His legs would just go flat."

Smith's legs, so long and distinctive even for a runner, are also abnormal within their own terms. The thighs take up so much vertical space that there seems to be hardly any room left for the rest of the leg that nature traditionally allots below the knee. His calves further accent the impression that he is all thigh and ankle. "They're so high, sometimes I think they're directly behind my knees," he says, laughing, as he does, at his wonderful peculiarities.

His hands are massive, too. Often, when he is thinking, he lays one on top of his skull, making his head look about the size of a cantaloupe. His shoulders are thin and wide, edges, and they ride high—at least four inches above the shoulder level of most men his size. Smith reaches up, and it is immediately apparent why he was the leading re-bounder on the San Jose freshman basketball team before he quit the sport. And yet these advantageous anomalies are placed on a spare, taut frame. The great hands are attached to his arms by thin wrists. The facial features are almost as delicate, so that sunglasses hide not just his dark eyes but the whole countenance. Smith admits to being skinnier than all seven of his sisters and all four of his brothers. He carries less than 180 pounds, and those churning legs that were, apparently, willed by Dan Patch begin below a tapered waist of hardly 31 inches.

The most distinguished feature of Smith's running, however, is his high knee action. "Even in high school," says Lee Evans, another teammate and the man most likely to break the 440 record if Smith does not, "Tommie had those high knees. Only then he couldn't keep them up." This Smith has learned to do under Coach Bud Winter, who has taught the high-knee, long-stride style for years. Smith's knees seem almost to climb to his throat, then are struck forward, with the lower leg following, flicking out into a monstrous stride that measures almost nine feet and appears only to tease the ground. He is like a man running the cakewalk.

Prancing along so, looking as if he would be more at home in the company of Donder and Blitzen than among mere mortals. Smith heightens the effect with his swept-back sunglasses. "People think right away I'm playing Mr. Cool," he says, "but I have good reasons. Security, for instance. I try to convince myself that if I can't see out too well, then nobody can see me very clearly, either. Security. I give a lot of speeches with my sunshades on."

The glasses are prescription, but with their wide stems they serve more functionally as blinders, limiting distractions from the side. "And this is something else," Smith says. "On a bright day, if you don't have your sunshades on, the sun makes you blink, so, you wrinkle your forehead, and that tightens up some muscles. Next it's likely to be your neck, and pretty soon maybe your shoulders are all scrunched up, too. Really.

"The important thing is to be relaxed—however you can. The day I set the world record, the 19.5 on the 220 straightaway, what I had for breakfast, for my training meal, was a Coke, french fries and a banana cream pie in the cafeteria. You have to find your own relaxation. I dance a little, a few steps, right at the blocks. People see me warming up, stretching my arms out. They think I'm loosening muscles up or something. Man, I'm yawning."

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