One of the United States’ all-time track and field greats, Carl Lewis, grew up in New Jersey and began his track career on a local youth team. He was as a sprinter at age 7 and branched out to long jumping at 13, but had a significant encounter that affected his athletic life midway between those two milestones, when he met Jesse Owens. Lewis and a cousin had a photo taken with Owens, the only track and field athlete to that point to win four gold medals in a single Olympic games
. As confident an athlete as Lewis was, it’s hard to imagine that he knew at age 10 – when he was still small for his age – that he’d one day join Owens in the record books. Owens was “someone who inspired me as a young child to compete,” Lewis later said in Bud Greenspan’s documentary of the 1984 Olympics.
Lewis was still attending the University of Houston when he finished second in the long jump, behind Larry Myricks, at the U.S. Olympic Trials to earn a spot on the American Olympic team. His fourth-place finish in the 100 meters also qualified him to run on the 4 x 100-meter squad. Unfortunately for Lewis the year was 1980 and the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics, so Lewis had to wait four years to taste Olympic glory.
During those next four years Lewis became one of the world’s dominant performers, winning a variety of NCAA and U.S. titles, plus gold medals in the 100 and the long jump at the 1983 World Championships. About two years before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Lewis took aim at Owens’ Olympic gold medal record.
Lewis was 23 years old when the 1984 Olympics began. The formerly small child had grown to 6-feet-2 and weighed 173 pounds. And he had a plan to win four Olympic golds, running the same four events that Owens had in the 1936 games.
Lewis won all three of his 100-meter heats. He drew Lane 7 in the final, leaving all his primary competitors to his left. American Sam Graddy beat Lewis out of the blocks, and midway through the race Lewis trailed Graddy and Canada’s Ben Johnson. But Lewis was still accelerating. He caught the leaders with about 25 meters remaining. With about 20 meters left he was winning, and the smile widening on his face told the story. Lewis blew the field away in the final meters, gaining his first gold medal in a time of 9.99 seconds, beating Graddy by 0.2.
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Two days later, Lewis ran – and won – a pair of 200-meter heats in the morning, had four hours off, then began the long jump final. Lewis was favored in his races, but was an even heavier favorite in the long jump. Jumping 11th in the opening round, Lewis leaped 8.54 meters (28 feet, ¼ inch), soaring past previous leader Giovanni Evangelisti of Italy, who’d jumped 26-6½. Lewis fouled on his second attempt, then passed his next four. He was confident that his effort would stand up, hoped to avoid injury, and wanted to preserve his energy for his other two events. Myricks was the final jumper, but he wasn’t even close as Lewis won the first of his four consecutive Olympic long jump gold medals.
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Another two days passed before the 200-meter final. Again, Lewis had won all his preliminary races. Again, he stood in Lane 7. But this time he didn’t need a late rally to win. He led the field coming out of the turn and extended the margin in the final meters to win in a then-Olympic record time of 19.80, breaking Tommie Smith’s mark of 19.83 set in 1968. Lewis also led a U.S. swept as Kirk Baptiste ran second in 19.96 and Thomas Jefferson was third in 20.26.
4 x 100-meter Relay:
Three days after winning the 200 Lewis anchored a 4 x 100-meter relay team that included Graddy, Ron Brown and Calvin Smith. When Smith handed off to Lewis the U.S. had a solid lead and Lewis, as usual, extended it, running an 8.94-second leg. The Americans won in a new world record time of 37.83 seconds, breaking the mark set by the U.S. at the 1983 World Championships, on a team that Lewis also anchored. Just as importantly, Lewis had achieved his goal and matched Owens’ quadruple-gold medal feat.
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