The IAAF named me “Sportsman of the Century”. The IOC named me “Olympian of the Century”. My parents named me Frederick Carlton. My athletes call me Coach Lewis these days.
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1961 and my family lived right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. My parents knew Dr. King and they were activists. They were also teachers. They taught me how to be strong and capable. They set a great example.
My parents started a girls’ track club in the late 60s – the Willingboro Track Club – because my mother felt it was important for girls to have one, just like the boys. My sister and I followed them to practice. I was told to act like the long jump pit was the beach, so I built sand castles.
My older brothers were successful athletes, but I felt like I was the runt of the family. I never imagined I’d be good at sports. But I worked hard, and made good use of the long jump pit. Growing up, weekends were spent at track meets. It was great being together, but I shared my parents with the community. They were so busy with the other kids they couldn’t focus on just me. They treated me like all of the other kids I had to learn it just like they did.
Early on, I was mediocre. I was small for my age, and a late bloomer. Then I started to grow, and my body caught up with my skills. I started to jump longer distances and run faster. Because I already knew how to lose and had kept going, I wasn’t afraid to fail, either. I didn’t even win my first State championship until my senior year.
My training wasn’t all physical. I was raised to be an independent thinker. My parents raised me to have strength and conviction. I loved growing up in Willingboro, NJ, but I wanted to move away for college.
Picking The University of Houston was out of left field as far as the track world was concerned; a lot of people wanted me to stay close to home. Villanova was one of the best schools in the country, and the locals expected me to go there. Yet my parents allowed me to make my own choice. I knew they would have loved for me to stay close, but they respected my wishes.
Coach Tellez was just starting out at Houston, and their program wasn’t well known. But when I was looking at schools, I was focusing on a program that could help me be my best. After signing, I declared that I wanted to be the best long jumper of all time. People probably thought I was dreaming. I was only 17 and Bob Beamon had held the world record of 29’2-½” for more than 11 years.
Recruiting was different back then. You couldn’t have as much back and forth with coaches because there was no texting, and no internet. We had one phone in our home and no call waiting. You had to visit, talk to coaches and other people. When you made your decision, you actually had to talk to everyone.
When I visited Coach Tellez, he just started coaching me. He said, “You have the talent, and I think you can go on to break records and become an Olympic champion.” This aligned with what I wanted. He also started showing me some videos and I said, “This guy really knows what he’s talking about.”
I wasn’t planning to be a sprinter in college. I was a long jumper and jumping 29’ was my goal. My freshman year, I won the NCAA Nationals and qualified for the ‘80 Olympic team. But people still thought I’d surely made a mistake in going to Houston as my best legal jump was shorter than my high school best. What they didn’t know was that behind the scenes I was working on a new technique – the double hitch kick. My second year as a sophomore, it all came together and I set the indoor World Record for the first time.
I also found that I liked the challenge of the sprints. So I decided to go for a double at the National Championships. First the indoors, then the outdoors. After completing there, I started thinking about Jesse Owens and what might happen if I could do his four events. Coach Tellez and I talked about how this might affect my long jump plan for 29’. We didn’t know if it could be done. I had jumped 28’7”… just 7” shy of the WR that summer…so close. So I made the conscious decision to go after four anyway, because I felt being that close at 20 years old, I could get the WR in the long jump one day. But I wasn’t sure if I could get four gold medals in the ‘84 Olympics. It wasn’t until ‘91 Tokyo, almost 10 years later that I finally hit 29’.
I had met Jesse Owens many years before at a track meet in Philadelphia. I’d won a Long Jump competition and he didn’t know me from any other kid out there. But he used me, the smallest kid, as an example: “See kids, even the smallest kid won the competition, so anyone can achieve it.” He’d picked me out of a pack and said I was somebody.
When he talked about going to Berlin ‘36, winning four Gold Medals in front of Hitler, I was very moved. I went home and looked up the story of World War II. It inspired in me a fascination with world history that is still with me today. I then was able to put the pieces together of how Jesse was treated in a foreign country, and discriminated against at home. My parents had been on the front line of the civil rights fight and the community, and Jesse Owens had wanted to earn a living after representing his country. I realized that my athletic success could affect history and I felt a deep sense of purpose.
I went to the Olympics in ‘84 and I was able to get all four Gold Medals. Jesse Owens’ widow, Ruth, was in the stands. When I finished my 100m I went to take a victory lap, I saw my parents in the stands cheering. It was amazing.
The rest of my career was an absolute firestorm. But I had been prepared by my parents, Jesse Owens, and Coach Tellez to handle what came. My parents gave me the psyche to believe I could do it, even though it was going to be hard. Their fight for civil rights, combined with Jesse Owens’ story also gave me a goal to shoot for and a deep source of motivation to do whatever it took. Coach Tellez taught me the focus, the discipline, the tools and techniques I needed to get it done.
There were a lot of sacrifices along the way. I never went to the beach as a kid, and our family time was at the track meets. As my career went on, I did track like I did school. There was lots of homework. I also learned about how my diet would make a difference. I knew that I had to be very careful, but that was before it was popular to “eat well”. For example, I often joke about other athletes going to Vegas while I hired a chef.
The last thing I want to say is that you have to always have faith in yourself. Trust your gut, but you have to know what that means. If you make a decision based on that, it will always be the right one. When I made my decision to come to Houston it wasn’t based on some big spreadsheet or plan. It was a feeling that I had when I woke up one morning. With the same trust in yourself, pick the people who you believe can really help you, not the ones who just hit your surface. Then listen to them. Coach T told me, “I think you can break the world record and become an Olympic Champion.” When I wanted to go for four he said, “I don’t know if you will do it, but I know what you need to do to maximize your chances.” That’s what I needed to hear. So that’s what I decided to do. Then we got to work, and the rest is history.
My story is larger than the races I ran. It’s about working extremely hard and finding what’s important to you. It’s also been about all of the people who have influenced me, from my parents to Jesse Owens to Tom Tellez. I’ve stood on their shoulders and tried to yell as loud as I could for equal rights for athletes, for fair play in sports, and for others to have an opportunity to achieve greatness. I owe them a lot for where I am today, and I honor them every day as I pass the baton to the next generation of coaches and athletes.