I met Powell in February, 2008 at the Michigan Track Coaches Association’s annual seminar, where Powell was a guest speaker. Powell discussed his career, his rivalry with Carl Lewis and his coaching philosophy. At the time, Powell was the jumps coach at UCLA. He’s since resigned that post.
On his start in track and field.
“Probably when I was in sixth grade. Just doing youth track, recreation meets. I played all sports, so it was track season, I went up there and I started running around and jumping and stuff. I wasn’t one of the best kids, necessarily, but was having fun doing it.”
On basketball being his original favorite sport.
“I was an academic All-American basketball player. I had really great skills but no left hand dribble, which wasn’t too good for a point guard. So, I had some small (college) offers, but nothing substantial. And I got offers for track, so I took that instead.” (Powell competed for the University of California-Irvine).
On the events he competed in before turning professional.
“I was actually long jumping, high jumping, triple jumping, sprinting – I was doing a whole bunch. ... I was primarily a high jumper. In high school I jumped seven feet in the high jump, and long jump was kind of an afterthought, actually.”
On deciding to concentrate on the long jump.
“I was doing all three jumps and I ran the 4 x 1 relay also, and I jumped like 24-7 my freshman (college) year. I jumped like 7-1 3/4 in the high jump (in high school) and then I graduated high school early – I was like 17 – so my sophomore (college) year I turned 19, I just kind of grew into my body. So my first jump of my sophomore year I went 26-5½ and I was world class at that point as a long jumper.”
On gradually improving as a long jumper in college.
“Throughout my whole career, really. I was always a hard worker, definitely blessed with a lot of ability but always wanted to come back every year and do something a little bit more, get a little stronger, get a little more flexible, get a better technique, a little better focus, a little better diet. Whatever it was, I would come back with something next year to get better and better and better.”
When he realized he could turn pro.
“When I jumped that 26-5½, I said, ‛Okay, I can do something here.’ All of the sudden people said – the next couple days, the headline was, ‛Mike Powell headed to an Olympic future.’ And I’m, like, ‛Sounds good.’”
On entering the 1991 World Championships with the world record on his mind.
“That’s what I went there to do. When I started working with my coach, Randy Huntington, in 1987, he said, ‛We’re in a four-year plan toward breaking the world record. And if you’re smart, healthy, listen to what I’m saying, you’re going to achieve that.’ So we went about getting a training regimen and a diet. I trained with Willie Banks, I learned how to be a champion just from being around him. In 1988 I won the silver metal in the Olympic Games. And I was closing the gap on Carl (Lewis). When I first started competing against him he was two feet better than me. Then it became a foot and then it became six inches. And then by the time 1991 came, at the national championships, he beat me by an inch ... on his last jump, so I said, ‛Okay, I’m there. Now the next time, I’m going to get him.’ So going into the world championships, I had some great jumps that summer and then when Carl broke the world record in the 100 meters I thought, ‛Okay, speed being the biggest component in the long jump, he’s going to be ready to jump far. So if I’m going to win, I better be prepared to break the world record.’ So my focus was thinking, in order to win (the world championship) I had to break the world record.”
On whether Carl Lewis’ success was on his mind.
“No, because I knew that it was my time. I kept getting better and better and better and better. And the thing is, I mean, Carl probably would’ve had the record, but he didn’t jump very much. I always tell people, ‛Hey, it’s not my fault he was that talented (that) he had to go run the 100 and 200 and the 4 x 1.’ He would jump two, three times a year, sometimes maybe four times. I was jumping 20 times, 25 times a year. So I was honing my craft. I was getting better and better and better, and with all respect, I just thought that I was going to beat him.”
On his mind set before the record-breaking jump.
“The thing is, the way the competition went, my second jump I took a jump that, it didn’t feel very far, it felt okay, it felt like about 27-2, 27-3. And they said it was 28-1. I said, ‛Uh-oh, I’m going far today. That’s 28-1? I’m going to go far.’ So I knew I had a big jump inside of me and then when he jumped that 29-2 3/4 and I saw it was windy (i.e., wind-aided), I thought, ‛Okay, good.’ I thought, ‛If I’m going to do it I’d better do it now.’ And then he motioned to the crowd, got ‛em fired up and I just got amped up and I went out there and I knew that was going to be my moment.”
On his competition with Carl Lewis.
“I demonized Carl. I had to. The guy is a living legend in my event. So, I was like, I’m not trying to befriend this guy. We’ll be friends after we finished competing. But right now, he’s the devil, and I’ve got to (think) everything he does, he’s doing something bad to make me upset. And I did everything I could to beat that guy. And that’s what I did. So whenever he competed I took it personal, I used everything I probably could. He was one of the greatest athletes of all time, in sport – track and field, any sport.”