It’s too early to know if Carl Lewis will one day be considered a legendary track coach.
The nine-time Olympic gold medalist set the bar so high, and for so long, as a sprinter and long jumper that it seems his second act in athletics can only be a step down. But he maintains the same intense drive to lead current and future athletes to stardom.
In an October article written by Nick Zaccardi of NBCSports.com, Lewis is quoted as saying, “My legacy as a jumper will not be how far I jumped. My legacy will be how far the people I coached jumped. I’m putting that pressure on myself.”
Time will tell if Lewis’ ability to pass on his wealth of knowledge to the current generation of University of Houston men’s sprinters and jumper can come close to what he did on the global stage, especially as an Olympian (10 total medals) and world champion in the 1980s and ’90s.
The 53-year-old Lewis understands that today’s athletes face different challenges than he did as an up-and-coming athlete. That may set him apart from older coaches who may have trouble relating to younger athletes.
“The biggest challenge I find is that we’re in a new era of dealing with young people that spend a lot of time in their lives in the mirror,” Lewis told The Japan Times in a recent interview. “That’s what social media does to them. It allows them to create their own reality. But the bottom line is that track and field is not a text message. You have to get in and do it. Sports are not a text message.
“So convincing them to put their text away (is key), and get out of the mirror unless you’re challenging that person in the mirror, and go out and be the best that you can be. You can’t just make it up.”
Lewis delivers a simple, but powerful message to prospective Houston student-athletes.
“My success is two things,” he stated. “If I go to recruit, the first thing I do is ask a kid, ‘How good do you want to be?’ They can say ‘I want to do this, this and this,’ and I can say, ‘OK we can help you get there.’ Every kid that comes on this campus for the next 20 years or however long I’m here, I hope to see someone that beats all of my records. I’m talking about school records, national records, world records and Olympic medal records, but what are the chances of that? I was the Olympian of the century (IOC’s Sportsman of the Century), so we’re not even going to know who that person is until I’m long gone.
“The thing is that one thing I can bring to the table is that I don’t need anything from you but your success. I don’t need your fame, I don’t need your money, and I don’t need you to build me up so I get more. I come into the game where it’s 100 percent about you. It’s not about me, because if you win a gold medal, I’m a U.N. Ambassador and an Olympic champion, so what that adds to it is a personal thing for me to help my university and these young people be the best that they can be.”
Lewis is in his first season as a full-time coach on the Cougars track and field staff. He served as a volunteer coach for the 2013-14 season, and started his current position in September. The Cougars, meanwhile, begin their 2014-15 winter season on Dec. 7 at the Texas A&M Reveille Invitational.
“Carl brings a wealth of experience and international recognition to the program that is second to none,” said Houston head coach Leroy Burrell, Lewis’ former Olympic teammate, in a statement.
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Lewis captured four gold medals (100-and 200-meter races, 4×100 relay and long jump) at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, equaling Jesse Owens’ feat at the 1936 Berlin Games and rising to iconic status. In a fitting bookend to his career, he collected his unprecedented fourth consecutive long jump gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, matching discus thrower Al Oerter’s Olympic conquest in 1956 (Melbourne, Australia), ’60 (Rome), ’64 (Tokyo) and ’68 (Mexico City).
Before that, Lewis secured his legacy as one of the all-time greats, including a 65-meet, long jump win streak that spanned 10 years until Mike Powell outleaped him on an electric August night in Tokyo in 1991.
The first of Lewis’ four L.A. gold medals — secured by a 9.99-second sprint in the 100 — means more to him than the others, he admitted.
“My father owns that one,” he said. “It’s the only one that I have not seen in over 20 years, and no one will ever see it again. That’s probably the most special.”
Lewis hasn’t competed in the 100 meters since 1997. In his final long jump, not unlike the last Lennon-McCartney collaboration, he soared triumphantly through the air in Atlanta, landing, as he still vivid recalls, 8.48 meters (27 feet, 10 inches) from where he took off.
He’s no longer active in two of his signature events, but he remains committed to physical fitness.
Here’s his detailed explanation:
“I do a variety of things. The one thing that surprises people is I don’t run at all. What I do is a combination of a circus workout and an aerobic workout. I ride the bike five days a week for 45 minutes to an hour and a half, Monday through Friday, and sometimes on weekends. I do a circus workout, which entails Gyrotonics, which is like Pilates, aerial skills you’ll see in something like Cirque Du Soleil, and trapeze that you see in the circus, and then I do tumbling one day. So five days of cycling and four days of the other type. My goal now is to do all the things they can do. Not good, because I’ll never be great at it, but to be able to do a split, to be able to hang, I want to do it all.
“It’s exciting to me.”
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Just a few weeks after his September promotion to full-time coach, Lewis said the community support has been significant, something he genuinely appreciates.
“The University of Houston community has been amazing,” Lewis said. “It really has been. People are supportive and it’s been like that all along. That isn’t anything I’m surprised about. What surprises me is the general community. When I go to the store, somebody says, ‘Congratulations. Way to go, coach!’ The community knows I live right there near campus, so I’m around people that are one mile from the University of Houston.”
He added: “I can go around the world and I’ll hear, ‘Oh, I hear you’re coaching now at the University of Houston.’ That’s the bigger message. This story has gone global. The announcement was on SportsCenter, when track and field doesn’t even get on SportsCenter. The local press has been tremendous. It’s been a tremendous thing for Leroy (Burrell) and me to come together and create a story that everyone is interested in following.”
What might, however, get lost in the narrative about this phase of in Lewis’ career in athletics is this: He recognizes that the now-octogenarian Tom Tellez, who worked on the Team USA staff as well, was the perfect mentor for him during his days as a Houston Cougar, the man who knew exactly how to lead him to greatness.
“What I like is that I had the greatest coach in the 20th century,” Lewis declared. “If I didn’t go to the University of Houston, I wouldn’t be sitting here, I wouldn’t be a nine-time Olympic gold medalist. I might have had some success — I’m sure I would have — but I would not have been the person that I became, and it happened because I had the best coach, the greatest philosophy and a lot of motivation.”
That all adds up to a powerful message, according to Lewis, — that is, his mentor set things in motion. “So that’s the thing I want these kids to understand,” he added. “You’re getting that passed down. You’re not just getting it from me; you’re getting it passed down from the greatest of the 20th century.”
Naturally, the blueprint for achieving greatness isn’t a one-day project. Lewis knows this as well as anyone, and his message, gained from working with and observing how Tellez pushed talented athletes to reach the top, is this: It’s a strategic plan; there are no shortcuts.
“The kids come to the University of Houston, and they always say to me, I want to go to the Olympics.’ I know a lot of people may think that’s arrogant or you have to go through the process to get there. What is that process? Hard work. Dedication. Studying in class. Winning your conference. Winning NCAA. Making the Olympic team and then being an Olympic champion. There’s a process.”
Step by step, Lewis mastered that process, putting in the necessary work to make it happen.
“When I came here to the University of Houston, Coach Tellez told me, ‘You can be an Olympic champion one day,’ and that was my goal from the minute I came here,” Lewis recalled. “I won numerous conference titles for my team, which I wanted to do. I won six NCAA titles, I won Olympic Trials and I won the Olympic Games. So my point is, why shouldn’t you want it all? Let’s use the process to get there.”
Above all, Lewis is as committed to winning now as he was during his reign as “King Carl,” one of the most recognized athletes on the planet.
“It’s not that I hate to lose,” he said, “a lot of people say that. I like to win. I don’t hate to lose, I like to win, because I’m in control of winning. That’s your work, your dedication and your detail . . .
“Right now,” he added, “I have the same fire because I want those kids to have the same energy that I got. I want them to get the same medals. I want them to win everything and get the same fame. I want my university to get the same credit that we know we can get. I want all of that . . . ”
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Lewis’ 10 Olympic medals stack up against the all-time greats’ exploits in other sports; only Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi had more (12, 1920-28) among track and field athletes. And while the quadrennial global extravaganza receives massive media exposure and public interest compared to track and field’s showcase meets, Lewis holds special memories from the 1991 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Tokyo.
It happened when he was an established superstar. The four medals from Los Angeles had catapulted him to the top. It was where he wanted to remain, and taking on Jamaica’s Raymond Stewart and Burrell, among others, Lewis came out on top in a sensational 100-meter final in Japan’s capital city, with six sprinters clocking sub-10-second times. Lewis reached the final line in 9.86 seconds, then the world record.
It was “the best race of my life,” he’s said many times. He also anchored the United States’ gold medal-winning 4×100 relay, which also set a world record. He fell to Mike Powell in the long jump, but leaped 8.84 meters on his final try in Tokyo; Powell was slightly better that day (with a world record 8.87 meters).
To this day, Lewis speaks fondly about that meet and other experiences in Japan.
“My best meet ever was in Japan,” recalled Lewis, who visited Japan in May 2013, lending support to Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic bid and taking part in sports clinics in Tohoku areas devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. “My first commercial ever was in Japan. I made more money there in Japan than any other country in the world.”
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If the 53-year-old Carl Lewis had a chance to coach the 23-year-old track star Carl Lewis, what would be two or three key nuggets of advice he would dish out?
“That’s a great question,” he said. “It’s a hard question to ask because of the nature of the times. If I could take me now and go back to that particular time, from a business standpoint I thought I could have done even better, made some better business decisions. At the time, there’s no way I could have known that, based on the nature of what we knew at the time. If the exact same 23-year old Carl Lewis was now, my career would be different, because I would have made better business decisions, because the sport is different.
“When I came in at the time, no Olympian had ever been known before the games. Track athletes didn’t make money. Amateurism was the rule of day except for pro sports. The NBA Finals were on at 11:30 p.m. Football was (mostly) only shown on Sundays and on two stations. The climate is so different that the knowledge I have now, that I could have explained to me then, I think I would have been a much better business person, because I would have managed the management part better, and some of the publicity. Things would have definitely been better all the way through.”
Clearly, Lewis enjoys saying what is on his mind and expressing his opinions in a public forum, knowing his words carry weight. He did so during the summer of 2008 after sprinter Usain Bolt burst onto the scene in Beijing, questioning the validity and oversight of Jamaican athletics’ drug testing.
“Countries like Jamaica do not have a random (drugs testing) program, so they can go months without being tested,” he said at the time, according to Reuters. “I’m not saying anyone is on anything, but everyone needs to be on a level playing field.
“I’m not saying they’ve done anything for certain. I don’t know. But how dare anybody feel that there shouldn’t be scrutiny, especially in our sport.”
Fast forward to 2014, when the World Anti-Doping Agency “said ‘serious issues’ were raised in a report that Jamaica carried out one out-of-competition drug test in the five months leading up to the 2012 Olympics,” NBCSports.com reported. In 2013, prominent Jamaican sprinters Asafa Powell, Sherone Simpson and Veronica Campbell Brown failed doping tests.
“A couple of years ago, I was attacked, especially by the Jamaicans and Usain, about my comments,” Lewis said, according to published reports earlier this year. “But all of a sudden when what I said was true, everyone went silent. I think their issue should be, let’s go back and ask them (Jamaica) to show that they’re doing what’s supposed to be done because I don’t know of any country that’s had as many positive tests in the last three or four years than their country.”
As a full-time coach, Lewis is back in the spotlight in a sport that often craves major exposure in the United States and beyond.
And that’s a very big deal. A publicity coup.