The man in blue in Lane 2 looked just like the ripped young runners on either side of him, chiseled from head to toe. Yet there was a subtle difference in his demeanor. Cool and measured, he didn't leap up and down like the others before settling into his blocks.
"On your marks," boomed the starter.
Taking his sweet time, the man eased his lean frame into position for the open 100-meter dash at the Mt. SAC Relays in Southern California. One runner couldn't hold back and popped a false start, but the man in blue paid no mind. The gun fired again, and he exploded off the line, his long, muscled legs seeming to float off the ground.
A football fan might have imagined him dashing under a long pass from Jim McMahon in the 1985 Super Bowl. Any spectator could have been forgiven for rubbing his eyes.
The man in blue was Willie Gault. A 48-year-old Willie Gault. The same Willie Gault who played 11 seasons in the NFL after getting drafted in the first round – in 1983.
Decades later, Gault still has world-class speed. His 10.80 clocking at Mt. SAC a couple weeks ago – not bad for his first 100 of the season – was only seven tenths of a second slower than his personal best nearly 30 years ago.
A few minutes after the race, sitting languidly at the end of the track next to the 20- to 22-year-old youths he'd kept up with, Gault eased off his spikes and slipped on mirror shades.
"I like to see the expression on their faces when they hear the announcer say this guy has the [100 meter] world record for over 45," Gault said.
Gault shook his head and smiled. "Age is just a number," he said.
Time can be especially cruel to sprinters, but Gault keeps clocking swift times and beating the odds. Few professional sprinters win beyond their 20s, and most hang up their spikes for good in their early 30s after the hamstring pulls and the years of pounding have taken their toll. Furthermore, most NFL veterans approaching the half-century mark suffer from arthritic knees and assorted aches and pains. Most consider themselves lucky if they can golf without pain.
Compare that to Gault, who can still crack 10 seconds in the 100-yard dash, and last year ran the 40 in a blistering 4.27. Age-grading track and field tables suggest that his recent 10.80 for the 100 meters at 48 is the equivalent of 9.76 by a man in his 20s – only a step behind Usain Bolt, and fast enough for a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics.
In this steroid and HGH-obsessed age, it's a fair question to ask: Is Gault on the juice? He said he's clean, and his consistently swift performances the past 30 years without the injuries associated with drug use would argue against any chemical shortcuts.
"What would I have to gain?" he said. "I'm not getting any money from running. I do this because it keeps me in shape. This is the only body I get. I understood that in high school."
Track experts don't know quite what to make of him. "He's a freak of nature," said Ken Stone of Masterstrack.com. "It's phenomenal. I don't see him as even needing to take drugs. He's quite a specimen."
Dennis McKinnon, Gault's teammate on the '85 Chicago Bears Super Bowl champion, marvels at his dashing friend.
"It's rare someone as humble as Willie has this perfection for life," McKinnon said. "His No. 1 thing is preparation. He really hasn't changed who he is in the last 20 years."
Experts in aging say it's a miracle.
"Mr. Gault is a remarkable individual," said Catherine Sarkisian, associate professor of geriatrics at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. Whereas decreased aerobic capacity and muscle atrophy begins at 25 for most men, "Gault probably has a delayed decrease in the maximum heart rate, and a lower rate of atrophy of the fast twitch muscles."
Scientists would love to study Gault.
"This shows we have not yet plumbed what training would do to people at older ages," said Steven Austad, a biologist who studies aging at the University of Texas. "What's the optimum training in your 40s? It may be that he's hit on something really good. Or he's some strange genetic outlier."
Gault has always been fast. The Georgia native ran track and played football at the University of Tennessee, and at 19 was a member of the U.S. Olympic team that boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He set a world record with Carl Lewis and two other speedsters in 1983 in the 4x100-meter relay at the World Championships in Helsinki and won bronze in the 110-meter hurdles.
He stepped into the Bears' lineup as a rookie and averaged 20.9 yards a catch that year and 19.9 yards over 333 catches in his career. The sprinter's blinding speed required double coverage that helped open holes for running back Walter Payton and played a key role in the Bears' 1985 championship season.
"Talk about [NFL] speed, and the list includes Ron Brown, Darrell Green, Deion Sanders," McKinnon said. "I say that Willie was faster than all of them. After a few steps Willie was at top-end speed. Nobody could catch him."
Gault was a versatile showman off the field always seeking new challenges. He orchestrated the Bears' hit single and video, "The Super Bowl Shuffle," rapping, "This is Speedy Willie, and I'm world class." With less than two months training, he performed the male lead with the Chicago City Ballet in a 1986 benefit performance that earned him glowing reviews. Later that year he phoned the USA Bobsled Federation. "I couldn't ski or ice skate," he explained. "All I could do was run and push." Run and push he did. The next year Gault earned his second world record, this time for the four-man bobsled.
Fast forward 20 years: In 2006 at Indianapolis, he clocked 10.72 in the 100 meters, setting the masters world record for over 45, and generating national press. Gault seems to be improving with age. Last April, at 47 he broke the over 45 record for 200 meters with a brisk 21.80.
His secrets? Hard work, an ethic learned in the NFL. "When I was with the Bears, I ran guys all game, every play," Gault said. "They'd have to run with me. I wanted to make sure they were tired."
Gault weighs the same 176 to 178 pounds he did 25 years ago. He eats sparingly, loves vegetables and organic foods, and eschews meat. "If a fish walked I wouldn't eat it," he said.
He said he abstains from the popular vices: "No drugs, no drinking, no smoking." Six hours is all the sleep he needs, and on his hard training days he does 1,600 crunches.
"Willie's an old gladiator," said Larry Wade, a former world-class hurdler. "If he's hurting or in pain, he'll keep going."
Wade recalled a 2004 sprint workout at UCLA with Maurice Green, that year's Olympic 100 meters bronze medalist, and former world champion Ato Boldon, saying, "Willie ran right with them. Maurice and Ato took pride in winning the last 100 meters. We were all in our prime. He was killing us."
Gault remembers it well. He was 44. "We were all betting on who would win each race," he said. "We ran 100 meters seven times. The seventh time I beat Maurice."
His afternoons and evenings are dedicated to various business endeavors and his Athletes For Life Foundation, which offers free testing for heart disease. He is an actor who appeared in several episodes of The West Wing and a season of The Pretender. Gault recently married singer and actress Suzan Brittan and the couple lives in Encino, Calif. He has a son in high school and daughter in college from a previous marriage.
But four mornings a week he adheres to the rigorous regimen of an elite professional sprinter. He works out with the professional HSI track club coached by John Smith, famed for developing numerous Olympic champions.
Gault doesn't lift as much weight as younger sprinters, but he still benches 225 pounds 10 times for three sets, and squats nearly 200 pounds during his four 90-minute sessions per week. Gault then displays his speed at the nearby West Los Angeles College track with pro sprinters young enough to be his sons.
"We were running 200 meter repeats earlier this year," Smith said, "and Willie kept picking up the pace." Martial Mbandjock, an elite 23-year-old French sprinter, struggled to stay with Gault. "My God, how old is he?" Smith recalled Mbandjock asking his coach, who couldn't resist a slight exaggeration.
"He's 50," said Smith, who chuckled at the memory. "He said, 'No way!' "
Gault said he has fulfilled his ambitions as an athlete. "I've done what I can as far as sports go. I'm entering a new chapter, enjoying business, working on saving people's lives, enjoying spending time with my son and daughter."
Don't believe that stuff about no more athletic goals. Smith said he wants to help Gault meet his next challenge: to run 10.65 in the 100 meters at age 50. The age graded tables equate that to 9.5 for a sprinter in his prime – faster than Bolt.
Speedy Willie just might get there. And fast.