Animal Athletes

By Luise Woelflein; art by Brian White

Human athletes test their speed, strength, and endurance in lots of different sports competitions all over the world. How would animals stack up against those athletes if they could compete, too? Let’s find out!

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100-METER DASH: The title of “World’s Fastest Human” goes to the person who can run 100 meters fastest. So what creature would be named “World’s Fastest Animal” if it were in the race? A cheetah! Zipping along at more than 60 miles per hour, a cheetah would be celebrating its victory while the fastest human sprinter was less than halfway down the track!

LONG JUMP: The long-jump champion of the animal world would be a very tiny athlete: a flea. Some kinds of fleas can jump 200 times their body length. If a flea were the size of a human, it would be able to jump the length of four football fields in a single bound!

HIGH JUMP: Top human jumpers can leap over bars that are eight feet off the ground. But a cougar may spring 18 feet in the air—from a sitting position! The silver medal might go to a white-tailed jackrabbit. It can jump 12 feet up—pretty impressive for an animal that’s only two feet long!

MARATHON: Marathon runners aren’t as fast as sprinters, but they can keep up their speed for long distances. A pronghorn can run 30 miles an hour for more than 20 miles. That means it would finish a marathon (26.2 miles) in less than an hour! (It takes the fastest long-distance human runners about TWO hours.)

Of course, human marathoners are stuck on the ground. But if there were a flight marathon (an AIR-athon?) the winner might be the bar-tailed godwit. This bird flies from Alaska to New Zealand—an 8-day, 7,000-mile trip—without ever stopping to rest!

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400-METER FREESTYLE: No swimmer in the world would want to compete against a sailfish. This large fish can torpedo through the water at 68 miles per hour. A sailfish would finish a 400-meter swim in about 13 seconds! (The fastest human swimmer takes 3 minutes and 40 seconds!)

MARATHON SWIM: A champion human swimmer can finish a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) marathon swim in a little under two hours—and would be gasping for breath at the end. A polar bear would finish in about half that time. And it could keep swimming at the same pace for another 50 miles!

DIVING: Human dive champions gracefully twist and turn as they fall toward the water. But a spinner dolphin would surely defeat them all. It can rotate up to seven times in one second in the air—and that’s after jumping 10 feet out of the water. No diving board needed!

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BALANCE BEAM: Have you ever watched a squirrel make its way along a narrow branch? If so, you’d know it would be a balance-beam champ. Squirrel bodies seem designed for this event! Their tails help them keep their balance. Their grippy feet let them hold on tight. Pads on their feet cushion their landings. And being able to easily jump from one end of the beam to the other would win them style points from the judges!

FLOOR ROUTINE: If golden wheel spiders competed in a floor routine, they would blow away the competition. These dwellers of Africa’s Namib Desert can escape hungry wasps by cartwheeling down sand dunes at the rate of 44 turns per second!

SPORT CLIMBING: A tokay gecko would beat even the most skillful human climber in this event. These tropical Asian lizards have sticky toes that let them quickly scurry up and across all sorts of surfaces—even ceilings and smooth glass. They are lightning-fast. And their toes are so grippy that one gecko foot can support 20 times the weight of its owner’s body.

WEIGHT LIFTING: Ounce for ounce, a rhinoceros beetle would win this competition every time. These beetles can lift 100 times their own weight. Even more impressive, they can walk around  carrying 30 times their weight for more than half an hour! If the strongest human weightlifter could do that, he could carry an elephant and not break a sweat!

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