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How do we describe someone who has special athletic skills?

For example, in Chinese we can say that “Bolt runs like an animal” to emphasize he runs so quick that even surpasses the normal level of human. Are there any phrases / expressions in English that have similar meanings?

To clarify, I’m not looking for an adjective to describe someone who can run fast, I just want to know if there's an expression to show that someone possesses a skill that may look like an animal instead of a normal human being. :)

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'Run like a bunny rabbit' was a common imperative in my East Alabama childhood; but I don't remember hearing the phrase used descriptively. 'Runs like a bat out of hell' is probably too far removed from what you're looking for. –  StoneyB Aug 11 '12 at 20:26
    
@StoneyB Special bats you got down round you: ours are sorry runners at best. –  tchrist Aug 12 '12 at 0:36
    
@tchrist Them's bats out of hell, man - just missed the cut in Monster Manual IV –  StoneyB Aug 12 '12 at 14:17

8 Answers 8

up vote 2 down vote accepted

It's slang, so you may not find this meaning listed in the dictionary, but sometimes the word freak is used to describe amazing athletic talent and ability.

Bleacher report, which is a U.S. sports news website, describes it like this:

Other players .. rely on freakish, raw athleticism to make their mark on the game and outperform their competition.

One sports columnist for CBS Sports claims he has used the term for at least a decade now, stating:

I've been compiling the annual Freaks List for almost a decade now. It's a top 10 that spotlights the top workout warriors or players who amaze their teammates and coaches with what they can do in the weight room, on the track or in some other "wow" aspect of athleticism.

Dan Hanzus wrote a column describes Calvin Johnson as a "ridiculously gifted pass-catcher" in a column entitled Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss athletic freaks, an article that contains this quote from a fellow NFL player:

Calvin might be slightly stronger. Moss might be slightly faster. They can go back and forth on the attributes, physically. They both have a high IQ for the game. Both (have) extremely strong hands. And they're freaks of nature.

It's not just American football players that get this label. NBA player James White got called a "freak" by a blogger last month. One of his former coaches was quoted:

I had a bunch of great players, but he is by far the most athletic kid I’ve ever coached. I mean, he’s a freak of nature as far as his athletic ability.

NBA player LeBron James and baseball slugger Albert Pujols have also been honored as "athletic freaks," in a column that reads:

Everyone knows that professional athletes are some of the most physically gifted humans on the planet. They can run and jump faster than the average person and have impeccable hand-eye coordination to boot. In addition to their natural ability they often spend hours training their bodies to reach its optimum performance, which can often take their games to the next level. With this in mind, here are the top freak athletes in the 3 major sports!

One other column listed wrestlers and track stars in compiling the 10 Biggest Athletic Freaks of All Time. One may agree or disagree with their list, but they did mention how they used the term:

The term “athletic freak” can be defined, not as their talents within their respective sport (although that does certainly help), but their raw talent in terms of physical giftedness and athletic ability in terms of strength, size, raw power, and agility.

(They didn't mention speed, but many of those on their list – Hershel Walker, Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Jim Thorpe, and decathlon champion Bryan Clay – were indeed freakishly fast athletes.)

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Not true that this is slang or not in the dictionary. freak noun /frēk/ freaks, plural: 1. A very unusual and unexpected event or situation - the teacher says the accident was a total freak - a freak storm. 2. A person, animal, or plant with an unusual physical abnormality. 3. A person regarded as strange because of their unusual appearance or behavior. (Google) –  MετάEd Aug 12 '12 at 6:48
    
@ΜετάEd: One might argue that this athletic ability is neither an "abnormality," nor "unusual behavior," both of which could be regarded as having negative connotations. It all depends on how a particular dictionary words its definitions, which is why I specified that "you may not find this meaning listed." Also, I think that, in this context, the term is short for freak of nature (which is an idiom listed in NOAD; a supposition supported by the fact that 2 of the 6 quotes I've provided actually use the whole phrase freak(s) of nature); such shorthand could be regarded as slang by some. –  J.R. Aug 12 '12 at 8:47

As mentioned, beast and freak are two good words for saying that someone is unnaturally talented at something.

Alternatively, you could make quite a direct translation and say that Bolt is an animal.

You could also say he's a running machine, which misses the direct comparison to animals but does hit the fact that he doesn't look like a normal human.

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+1 for machine. Great answer. –  J.R. Aug 12 '12 at 9:44

I suggest kinesthetically gifted.

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Another slang term for superior athletic ability (or any extremely high ability) is beast. It is similar to the word freak as mentioned above, but it has a more positive connotation and can be applied to high ability in anything, not just athletics.

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Ngrams for fast as a cheetah,fast as a gazelle shows the latter phrase being used more frequently than the former during much of the 1940-1990 interval; at the moment, fast as a cheetah is running well ahead of fast as a gazelle. Note, fast as a swallow has a 100-year head-start on the other two phrases and at the moment is giving fast as a gazelle a run for the money. An unladen European swallow cruises at about 11 m/s, or 24 mph, vs gazelle speed of 30 mph cruising, 60 mph peak vs cheetah speed of 70-75 mph peak. The average speed of the Jamaican team that Bolt anchored in the 4x100-meter relay was 10.86 m/s (400 m in 36.84 seconds), quite close to the swallow's speed, so in terms of speed, the appropriate comparison is: "Bolt runs like an unladen European swallow."

Edit: As noted in an ngrams link in tchrist's comment, a more-senior and more-popular term than any of these is "swift as a swallow". Indeed, an ngrams for recent years shows swift as a swallow ahead of fast as a cheetah in 2008. Revising my example sentence in light of this new information gives: "Bolt runs swift as an unladen European swallow" (or, if you prefer, swiftly rather than swift) or perhaps one of "Bolt runs swift as a swallow", "as swift as", "as swiftly as".

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Gag, more N-Gram abuse! You mean swift as a swallow. See why. –  tchrist Aug 11 '12 at 21:14
    
I hope it is unnecessary to point out that "unladen swallow" is a joke, from Monty Python. –  Malvolio Aug 11 '12 at 22:29
    
@Malvolio, right, totally unnecessary! But feel free to add an answer elaborating on speeds of African swallows. –  jwpat7 Aug 11 '12 at 22:33

Fleet-footed Achilles may not have run as fast as a cheetah, but he certainly gave the tortoise a run for his money.

EDIT

The historically dominant simile in English is the alluringly alliterative swift as a swallow.

Although neither swallows nor swifts are so fleet on the wing as a plunging peregrine, no felicitous phrase for the peregrine’s meteoric stoop, falling as fast as 220 mph, is known to regularly occur.

Which is really too bad, for the peregrine is the fastest critter known to man — well, this side of a frog in a centrifuge, whose celerity is legend.

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Thanks for the answer! I've edited the question. :) –  derekhh Aug 11 '12 at 20:16
    
@derekhh Try my update: swift as a swallow wins for most frequently used. I know, for the N-Grams told me so, and they never lie. –  tchrist Aug 11 '12 at 21:42
    
I see what you did there. –  MετάEd Aug 11 '12 at 22:02
    
Does it have to be a simile with an animal? –  J.R. Aug 12 '12 at 1:42

Gifted or Amazing are a couple I would use. And for the really amazing ones, there's superhuman.

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We have a number of comparison phrases that we use to describe speed or agility e.g he runs like the wind, he runs like a cheetah or he runs like a gazelle.

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Wind and cheetah are pretty standard for "speed" comparison, but I think gazelle is more commonly used when calling attention to graceful, elegant or skittish, timid qualities. Bear in mind cheetahs actually eat gazelles, so it's pretty obvious which one is fastest. Besides which, most people know that cheetahs (at up to 75mph) achieve by far the fastest land speed of any living animal –  FumbleFingers Aug 11 '12 at 20:35
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@FumbleFingers Between cheetahs and gazelles, I wouldn’t call cheetahs fastest; I’d call them faster. Besides, the gazelle is a slow-poke compared with a pronghorn, who are the critter who actually evolved to outrun, or at least outdistance, the cheetah. They are much faster than a mere gazelle. –  tchrist Aug 11 '12 at 20:40
    
@tchrist: In 30 seconds on Google, the fastest I can find for pronghorn (apparently recognised as the world's second fastest animal) is 62mph, which is still some ways behind the cheetah's 75mph. But they can keep up high speeds for longer. Plus of course, the cheetah is only running for its lunch, whereas the pronghorn is running for its life. –  FumbleFingers Aug 11 '12 at 20:48
    
@FumbleFingers It’s disputed, and unclear — I can find 70 mph, so 3,060 feet of your Googling — but that was hardly the point. –  tchrist Aug 11 '12 at 20:49
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Sorry guys, I think you're taking this all a bit literally! –  Tony Balmforth Aug 11 '12 at 20:52

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