Sarah the cheetah has shattered the world record for the standing 100-meter dash, clocking a time of 5.95 seconds—making Olympian Usain Bolt's world record of 9.58 seconds look positively stodgy by comparison.
On a USA Track & Field-certified course established by the Cincinnati Zoo, the 11-year-old cheetah was radar-timed at up to 61 miles (98 kilometers) an hour, according to a Thursday announcement by zoo officials and National Geographic magazine. The magazine photographed Sarah and other zoo cheetahs for a project to be featured in its November issue, which will include unprecedented high-speed pictures.
Video: Sarah the Cheetah Beats Bolt's Best
Sarah's June 20 sprint is the fastest timed 100 meters ever run by anything on the planet, the officials said—though it was no suprise to Cathryn Hilker, founder of the Cincinnati Zoo's Cat Ambassador Program, who helped raise Sarah from a cub.
"Nobody can run like Sarah," Hilker said. "She's special. I always knew she could run under six seconds, but to see it happen like this is wonderful."
"She looked like a polka-dotted missile," added National Geographic photo editor Kim Hubbard. "I've never seen anything alive run that fast."
Cheetah Summer Games
During the photo shoot, five cheetahs each completed several sprints a day. For the cats it seemed to be a game, bolting out of the back of one of the zoo's vans and chasing fluffy toy dogs as they were pulled across a meadow on a high-speed cord.
The cheetahs are used to long sprints, regularly running for zoo crowds eager to witness one of nature's most adrenaline-charged spectacles.
The demonstrations—among other outreach programs—are not only good for the individual cats, who get much-needed exercise, but good for the species as well: Over the years the zoo's track-star cheetahs have helped raise over a million U.S. dollars for conservation, and National Geographic magazine's coverage of the sprint was supported by National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative. (National Geographic News is a division of the Society.)
Cheetahs Even Faster in the Wild?
For the technicians, handlers, and photographers, on the other hand, the days were long and hot and challenging. Cheetahs may be the fastest land animals on Earth, with acceleration rivalling that of a Lamborghini, but they're individuals too. (Watch a cheetah video.)
"They have moods like the rest of us," Hilker said. "And like people, some are better athletes than others and keener for the chase."
Over the course of the event—more than 30 heats in all—the 100-meter times for the zoo's five cheetahs ranged from Sarah's blistering 5.95 seconds to a pedestrian 9.97 seconds by a young male cheetah, who loped along distractedly.
As astonishingly swift as Sarah's world record time of 5.95 seconds might seem in a human context, it's almost certain that cheetahs in the wild—lean, hungry, chasing down antelopes for their own survival or that of their cubs—have run considerably faster.
"This is just for fun, as far as they're concerned," Hilker said. "They know they're going to get fed. They can see the finish line."