Walter Dix takes off the spandex

Sprinter, USA Track & Field

Updated: July 11, 2012, 9:53 AM ET
By Morty Ain | Photographs: Olugbenro Ogunsemore

tkOlugbenro Ogunsemore for ESPN The MagazineDix will miss London because of an injured hamstring.

This is an extended interview from the 2012 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. Subscribe to the Mag today!

Why did you decide to pose in the Body Issue?
WD: I wanted to show a different description of a track and field athlete. I have a differently sculpted body than most sprinters. I'm built more like a football player. I can squat 400 pounds; I can bench more than 315 pounds. But I can still run a 9.88 in the 100-meter dash.

If you could write your own description of your body next to your photo, how would it read?
WD: Built tough and built to last -- like those car commercials.

Why do you want to be the best?
WD: Because I want to be remembered. I compete to become a legend, and to be legendary you have to be the best. I want track and field to be synonymous with my name. That's the idea. To be the World's Fastest Man is something I've worked toward for a long time. I used to envision myself as those track stars and try to mimic them -- Michael Johnson, Maurice Greene, Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes. In the hallway of my house, I'd envision myself getting that stick, running everyone down and winning the Olympics.

I want to be remembered. I compete to become a legend. I want track and field to be synonymous with my name.

Describe your toughest day of training.
WD: In December, we'll wake up at 6 a.m., go to the weight room and then go out to the beach in 38 degrees and run barefoot on the sand. Our coach wants us to build up the muscles in our feet. He'll make us run a whole bunch of 100-meter wind sprints, probably at least 15. Our lungs are freezing up, we've got snot running down our noses. It's a tough feeling, especially because we just spent a couple hours squatting a lot of weight. But if you want to win Olympic gold, there's no complaining. After that, some of us will even do more ab work.

What do you tell yourself when you feel like you can't train anymore?
WD: I never believe I can't go any further. There is always a way and always an opportunity to get better. If I'm tired, I tell myself, "bronze medal." Nike once had an ad that said, "There's nothing more inspiring than bronze." [Editor's note: The 1996 ad said, "You don't win silver -- you lose gold."] That's true. I won bronze in Beijing, and I was happy to get that medal, but I don't want to come back without gold this time. I've added in the weight room, I've gotten stronger and I have things in perspective. That's the difference this year. I know the feeling of being two spots away from the gold, and I'm not going to feel it again.

What is the one exercise you can't live without?
WD: Jogging. It helps me stay in shape and allows me to get stronger by working on my form: arms, legs, knee lift. I try to jog in perfect form.

Was there any point when you thought a sprinting career wasn't going to work out?
WD: In high school I wasn't winning a lot of races, and I started to look for other sports. I was pretty good at football. I played basketball a lot. But ultimately I just stuck with track. My father taught me consistency, and he was right. Soon the guys who were beating me started getting cocky and stopped doing the things they were supposed to and weren't training hard enough, but I kept at it, kept training hard, and I started beating them. Some of those guys would try to associate winning with life, like winning a race meant winning at life, and as a kid that used to get me down. But when I started beating them I knew it wasn't like that -- it was just a race, and that perspective helped me a lot.

When you get down to 4 percent body fat, it's hard to stay healthy. You have no body fat to clean up that sickness, so you sort of tap out.

What was it like growing up with two older brothers?
WD: I got picked on a lot and that made me really humble. They still pick on me to this day. Some habits never change, but that's why you go home -- things will always be the same. They'll make fun of the way I eat, or they'll bust out songs I used to sing when I was younger. For example, when I was 7 or 8, I sang a lot of Keith Sweat, and I pronounced his name "Kee Sweat" -- without the "th." They still make fun of me for that.

Which body part do you work out for mostly aesthetic purposes?
WD: My abs. The whole idea is to get your core strong, but you can have a strong core without good-looking abs. Baseball players have strong cores, and some of them walk around with guts. But baseball players don't have to wear tight bodysuits. Runners do, so you want your abs looking all right. Plus, there are a lot of people looking at your bodysuit, and if all those people are going to see me I might as well look good.

What body part do you neglect because it isn't important for your sport?
WD: Track is so different than other sports because everything is connected. Your whole body is important and all of your muscles have to be hitting and firing on every step. So if anything, I'll say my neck -- you don't have to do any neck work as a sprinter -- but everything below the neck gets worked on.

What about your body would surprise us?
WD: I have really huge calves for a sprinter. Usually sprinters have big quads and big hamstrings, but big calves aren't common. I'd say my calves are twice the size of a typical sprinter's. But I think it's something that helps me with my speed. Sometimes it gets in people's heads when I beat them, like they can't beat me because my calves are too huge. I run with a slightly different form -- in a position where I power off from my calves. But because of that, I also end up needing a lot of massage work on my calves.

What is the biggest challenge you face with your body?
WD: Staying healthy. When you are training for track and field and you get down to 4 percent body fat, it's hard to stay healthy and avoid being sick. You have no body fat to clean up that sickness, so you sort of tap out. Fat eats up waste, and the less body fat you have, the more waste that goes into muscles. So you have to eat right, get a lot of rest and stay away from trouble.

At the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore., on June 24, Walter Dix pulled his hamstring during the 100-meter semifinals -- an injury that ultimately prevented him from qualifying for this year's Olympic Games in London. On June 29, he announced via Twitter: "Unfortunately I had to withdraw from the Olympic Trials. I was looking fwd to participating in the hopes of standing on the podium representing your country. But my hamstring has been an issue this summer and time to regroup and heal is what I have to do. I wish all my compatriots the best as they go for the GOLD. I know they will make us all proud!!!" The following day, he talked to us about what happened:

When did you first realize there was a problem?
WD: I felt it in the [100m] semifinals.

Can you describe the moment?
WD: Near the end of that race, it tugged harder and harder. It felt like a strain. Each step was worse and worse. Not much was going on in my head at the time -- I just wanted to get to my trainers to see what was going on as soon as possible.

When was the moment that you realized your body wasn't going to cooperate?
WD: When we viewed the MRI [after the final], that's when I found out I'd be risking further damage by continuing.

Can you put into words how you felt?
WD: It's probably one of the worst feelings ever. There aren't any words. When you've come so far and then something like this happens, you have to believe there is a reason. You have to have faith.

How do you feel about your body right now?
WD: It comes with the territory. In all sports, there's a chance of injury. Mine just happened to catch me at the worst possible time ever.

How are you planning on bouncing back?
WD: The plan is to heal up completely and find out where the problem stems, then correct it. Then come back to the track healthy and twice as strong so myself, my fans and my supporters can see what a "healthy" Walter Dix can do.

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