For sprinter Walter Dix, the athletic epiphany came when he was 9 years old and playing street football.
A "big kid," four years his senior, challenged him to a race. A mismatch, some figured. Not so much. Dix beat him by a lean, which was the moment he — and those in his Fort Lauderdale neighborhood — realized just how freakishly fast he was.
"Everybody started picking me for their football team," Dix said with a sly grin.
Imagine that, huh?
Dix's football days ended after he graduated from Coral Springs High and headed to Florida State in 2004, but he has continued to impress with his speed, outrunning virtually all comers.
Dix, 22, who helped lead the Seminoles to a third straight NCAA outdoor track and field championship last month, recently won the 200 meters and finished second in the 100 at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., to earn a trip to Beijing. He also is expected to compete in the 4x100 relay, sure to give new sponsor Nike plenty of exposure for its multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal.
NBC Olympic track and field analyst Ato Boldon is an unabashed fan of Dix and predicts the former Seminole will medal in the 200 and "it wouldn't be a huge shock" for him to earn a podium finish in the 100.
"He is a great competitor," Boldon wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "No matter when he is supposed to finish, he tends to run above that level."
'He was … crying'
Washington Dix, a former sprinter at Bethune-Cookman and a longtime prep track coach, recognized something special in his youngest son from his first organized race.
Walter was 7 at the time.
And he lost.
"He was standing there crying," Washington Dix recalled after Anthony Gaines, who would go on to USF for football and track, bested Walter. "I said, 'Hey. It's time to get busy with this kid; he really wants to win.' "
"When I was younger, I used to cry a lot when I lost," Walter said. "I don't know why I hate to lose so much."
Raw ability has always carried him far, to be sure, but determination is what has allowed him to separate from his peers. And not just the ones in his neighborhood.
As a 14-year-old, Walter went to an AAU track meet and long jumped 23 feet, 10 inches. His father told him that was only a little more than a couple of inches off what Carl Lewis jumped when he was 14.
"That pretty much let me know I was on the path so that I could be a great athlete one day," Walter said.
It also gave Washington Dix an idea. He researched the times of Olympians at various ages, including Lewis, Michael Johnson and Brooksville's John Capel, to give his son a measuring stick.
"My dad kept the checklist," Walter said. "I just did the work."
"If anyone thinks he runs a race just to run a race, he's got another think coming," the elder Dix said. "He's going to run a race to win the race. I don't care how big or how small it is."
Florida State coach Bob Braman knew the kid he was recruiting was fast, but he left the Class 4A state meet in Gainesville in May 2004 awestruck. Dix easily won the 100 in 10.38 seconds, and the 200 in 20.62.
He saw that Dix could be better. A lot better.
"He looks like he's riding a bike, kind of sitting back," Braman recalled excitedly telling his staff on the phone. "When he learns to rotate forward, he's going to fly."
As an FSU freshman, Dix broke the junior record for the 200 indoors (20.37) and 100 outdoors (10.06) before he won the 100 at the NCAA championships.
"You said then, 'Okay. This guy's ridiculously good,' " Braman said.
Dix won the 200 at the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships as a sophomore, then in 2007 defended his indoor title in his signature event and won the 100 (in 9.93) and 200, and ran on the winning 4x100 relay at the NCAA outdoor finals, becoming the first sprinter since John Carlos in 1969 to sweep those events.
"When he ran 9.93 with no wind in Sacramento at the NCAAs," Boldon said, "he became world class that day, in my eyes."
In the eyes of sponsors, too. Dix was offered millions to leave school and turn professional, but he wanted to finish his degree in social science and help his team go for a three-peat. He did both. (He also plans to start graduate school in January.)
He won the 200 at the Olympic trials by a lean over 2004 Olympic champ Shawn Crawford in 19.86 and was second to Tyson Gay in the 100, finishing with a wind-aided time of 9.80.
"There's an awful lot of young, talented athletes out there who never make it for one reason or another," said former Florida State coach Terry Long, who as a volunteer has worked with Dix since January. "They get sidetracked by friends. They get in trouble. They don't focus on the things they have to do academically or athletically.
"Walt is one of those special people who's the total package."
Consider what the compact and powerfully built 5-foot-9, 190-pound Dix did at the trials despite missing much of the outdoor season trying to recover from a strained left hamstring.
"I think I can get a lot quicker," said Dix, who continues to work on his starts, staying lower a bit longer at the trials in what his coach has called a major technical breakthrough. "I still feel like my best race is inside me. … I don't think the world has seen the best of me yet."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.