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 as if experiencing a flashback.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“I know people who would like to do tests on him,” said Steven Austad, a biologist who studies aging at the University of Texas. “This shows we have not yet plumbed what training would do to people at older ages. 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’ dominant 1985 championship season.
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