Carl Lewis: The man who beat age, gravity, history, logic and the world to win a 9th Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics
At 35, Carl Lewis beat age, gravity, history, logic and the world to win a 9th Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics
Considered one of the most successful Olympic athletes of all time, Frederick Carlton Lewis was born July 1, 1961, in Birmingham, Alabama. Raised in Willingboro, New Jersey, Carl and his three siblings were part of a middle-class family, one in which their parents, Bill and Evelyn Lewis, exposed them to various arts and sports. With his mother, Lewis attended plays and musicals, and could play the cello, piano, and dance.
Lewis competed in track and field events for the local town club, which his parents both coached. He was very short for his age and extremely shy, and his younger sister Carol called him "Shorty". Lewis underwent a traumatic growth spurt at the age of 15, shooting up two and a half inches in just a month, forcing him to get around on crutches until his body could adjust to the change.
By the time Lewis reached his senior year in high school, he was one of the leading high school track and field athletes in the country. His long jump mark of 26-8 ended up setting a new national prep record that year.
Lewis went to the University of Houston, instead of local track power Villanova, to become more independent. By 1981, he was No.1 in the world in the 100 meters as well as the long jump. Two years later, he won the 100, 200 and long jump at the U.S. National Championships, the first person to achieve this triple since Malcolm Ford in 1886. In 1981, he was named the top U.S. amateur athlete after becoming just the second person in NCAA history to win the 100 meters and long jump at the college championships. The first person to achieve that accomplishment had been Lewis' idol, Jesse Owens.
1984 Los Angeles Olympics
While Lewis qualified for the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, but he never got the chance to compete because of the U.S. boycott of the games. The 6-foot-2, 173-pound Lewis had even grander plans for the 1984 Olympics: four gold medals. First came the 100 meters. With a burst that was clocked at 28 mph at the finish, Lewis won by an incredible eight feet, the biggest margin in Olympic history with a time of 9.9 seconds. He went on to win three additional golds in the long jump, the 200, and the 4x100 relay.
No one had ever successfully defended either the long jump or 100-meter title in the Olympics. Lewis won both in 1988. Competing in the long jump final just 55 minutes after he qualified in the preliminaries of the 200, Lewis finished first with a leap of 28-7¼.
In the 100m, Lewis was beaten to the finish line by Ben Johnson, who ran a remarkable 9.79 seconds. But the steroid-using Canadian was stripped of the gold medal for failing a drug test, and Lewis was moved up to first. His 9.92 seconds was listed as the world record.
Later years and other competitions
Lewis went on to compete in three more Games: the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea; the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain; and the 1996 Games in Atlanta. In all, Lewis won nine gold medals, including a final gold in 1996 in the long jump. That same year, Lewis regained the ranking of No. 1 in the event, an astonishing 15 years after first claiming the top spot.
In addition, Lewis won eight career gold medals in the World Championships. The 1991 World Championships in Tokyo were quite incredible, in both the 100 meters and long jump. Lewis won one and lost the other. In the 100, six runners broke 10 seconds, with Lewis leading the pack after a mighty finish. "He passed us like we were standing still," said runner-up Leroy Burrell.
For the first time in his life, after going undefeated in the long jump for a decade, after winning six Olympic gold medals, Lewis had at last set an untainted, unshared world record (since broken) with his 9.86 seconds. "The best race of my life," Lewis said. "The best technique, the fastest. And I did it at 30."
Lewis' 10-year unbeaten streak in the long jump came to an end five days later, even though he put together the greatest series of jumps in history. Lewis had never before reached 29 feet, and on that day he did it three times, including 29-2¾ (wind-aided) and 29-1¼ (against the wind). But Mike Powell, who had lost 15 consecutive times to Lewis, unleashed the longest jump in history -- 29-4½.
At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Lewis got his revenge on Powell, who had the record that Lewis craved, when he edged him by 1¼ inches with a leap of 28-5½. Lewis won his eighth gold medal by anchoring the record-setting 4x100 relay team.
Eight wasn't good enough for him. Lewis, who qualified third in the 1996 Olympic Trials in the long jump, showed he still had one huge leap left in him. His 27-10¾ at Atlanta was his longest jump at sea level in four years and he captured another gold medal.
Despite his astounding performances, Lewis never achieved great popularity among fans in the United States, and even worldwide his ability outstripped his appeal. He tried his hand at a singing career but was met with disastrous results; he has also appeared in a few movies. He did become wealthy from his athletics career and many athletes credit Lewis with increasing performance fees in the sport.
"Lewis beat age, gravity, history, logic and the world at a rocking Olympic Stadium in Atlanta to win the Olympic gold medal in the long jump," wrote Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated. "It was quite possibly his most impossible moment in an impossibly brilliant career."