Frederick Carlton Lewis a.k.a Carl Lewis is an American former track and field athlete who won nine Olympic gold medals, one Olympic silver medal, and 10 World Championships medals, including eight gold. His career spanned from 1979 to 1996, when he last won an Olympic event. He is one of only three Olympic athletes who won a gold medal in the same individual event in four consecutive Olympic Games.

When Carl Lewis agreed to come to my photo studio to do pictures for Muscle & Fitness, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was 2013 and he had been retired for several years, so I wasn’t sure what kind of shape he would be in. Also, during his competitive career, Carl had a reputation for not always being very cooperative with the media.

A young Carl Lewis with his arms stretched out
Your body changes as you age, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it fall apart.” Bill Dobbins

So, imagine my relief when it turned out Carl Lewis was in super shape, totally ready for a photo session. Plus, he turned out to be one of the most cooperative celebrities I’ve ever worked with. He went along with whatever suggestions I had. And he came up with some good ones of his own – such as posing in a long, leather coat doing his best impression of Wesley Snipes in “Blade.”

I asked a friend of mine, veteran Olympics photographer Tony Duffy, about Carl’s “difficult” reputation. “Can you imagine,” he told me, “The amount of discipline and concentration it takes to compete successfully at the highest levels for about 20 years and to win so many medals? And all the time people keep putting microphones and cameras in your face and demanding your time and your attention – not for your benefit but for theirs. It amazes me that athletes like Carl have been as patient and cooperative as they have!”

A young Carl Lewis performing a bicep curl with light weights
Stretching, flexibility, and, of course, weight training has been key in his retirement from the track. Bill Dobbins

My father was a competitive track athlete and half-mile national champion. He told me that much of his success came from the fact that he trained a lot harder than most of his competition. He trained back in the day more as modern athletes do now. But none of his coaches would have condoned his working out with weights. A common put-down for athletes with a lot of muscle was, “Oh, he picked that up in the gym!” Except for training actual weightlifters, it was thought there was something artificial about a physique created with weights and that developing this way did not really enhance athletic performance.

Take a look at a lineup of Olympic sprinters nowadays. They are all so defined and muscular and look like small bodybuilders. The women as well as the men. Sports like golf and baseball that used to be considered “skill” sports now see increases in performance because the athletes involved have discovered the benefits of weight training. Training like bodybuilders, not weightlifters. And there is no doubt that somebody with the physique of Venus Williams did not build all that muscle just by playing tennis.

When I complimented Carl Lewis on his fitness and conditioning, he told me, “When I was competing, I had a very rigorous training schedule, everything scheduled and laid out in advance. Once I retired, I had come up with a regimen I could follow and still take care of the other demands on my schedule and daily life.” Some of that, he told me, involved running and other cardio exercises. Stretching and flexibility. And, of course, weight training in the gym.

Track and Field gold winner Olympian Carl Lewis on the cover of Sports Illustrated
9 Olympic gold medals, 1 Olympic silver medal, and 10 World Championships medals, including 8 gold. Sports Illustrated

“Actually,” he explained, “I wish I had known as much about training and diet back in the 1970s and 1980s as I do now. There has been much progress in these areas over the past few decades. It would have made things a lot easier for me.”

One thing Carl Lewis doesn’t like is the stereotype of the athlete who retires and then gets fat and out of shape. That’s something you don’t see as much of nowadays; he points out and is certainly not true in his case. “Given the amount of effort and discipline it took to train for the Olympics, staying in shape in my 40s, 50s, and beyond is comparatively easy. It is a matter of making sure, no matter how busy I get, to continue my program of exercise and diet.”

Carl hopes his example will help other more mature men, athletes or not, realize you don’t have to quit taking care of your body and your health just because you are a few years older.

“Your body changes as you age,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean you have to let it fall apart. The knowledge exists as to how to maintain an excellent physique well into your senior years. And, for some, beyond that. It’s just a matter of taking advantage of the knowledge available to you.