Powell, Mike 1963–
Mike Powell 1963–
After years of long jumping in the shadows of superstar rival Carl Lewis, Mike Powell made his definitive mark in 1991 by breaking the oldest record in track and field. Powell’s leap of 29 feet 4 ½ inches at the World Track & Field Championships in Tokyo, Japan, topped the distance jumped by Bob Beamon in the 1968 Olympics—a performance that had once been declared impossible to better. Powell’s new record ended Lewis’s domination of the event that had given him an incredible 65 victories in a row over a 10-year period, includinga 15-0 record against Powell in head-to-head meetings.
Hardly lacking in confidence, Powell had been claiming for years before his great leap that he could surpass Beamon’s legendary mark. While he had been one of the world’s top-ranked long jumpers before his record-setting jump, his awe-inspiring achievement, combined with Lewis’s gradual fade from the scene, put his career into a higher gear. Powell’s world ranking rose to Number One and he showed remarkable consistency over the next few years. Unlike Lewis, who even during his peak had been very selective about performing, Powell maintained a workhouse schedule of meet appearances that testified to his durability as well as his skill.
Powell began demonstrating superior jumping talent as a child, often shocking neighbors by jumping over their cars. An important early influence on his motivation was his maternal grandmother, Mary Lee Eaddy, with whom he lived with for a while as a boy in West Philadelphia. Eaddy took Mike to her local Baptist church every Sunday and drummed into him the importance of hard work as an ingredient of success.
After Powell’s parents got divorced, his mother, Carolyn, took the family to West Covina, California, in 1974. In high school Powell’s favorite sport was basketball and, even though he was only 6 feet 1 inch tall, he would often dunk the ball over much taller centers. He also demonstrated exceptional skill as a high jumper, triple jumper, and long jumper. However, even though he was a top athlete in the state and also an academic All-American, he was not sought out by major universities, partly because basketball scouts didn’t think he could dribble the ball well enough for top-level college competition. Powell settled for a track scholarship from the University of California at Irvine, then discovered that he couldn’t play on the basketball team at all because the season overlapped with the track and field team’s schedule.
Born Michael Anthony Powell, November 10, 1963, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Preston (a teacher) and Carolyn (an accountant; maiden name, Eaddy) Powell. Education: Attended University of California, Irvine; University erf California, Los Angeles, B.A., 1986.
Became top long jumper in the world in early 1990s. Was one of the best high jumpers, triple jumpers, and long jumpers in state while attending Edgewood High School in California; finished sixth in long jump at U.S. Olympics trials (did not qualify for team), 1984; earned top-ten ranking in world as long jumper, 1985; won long jump at World University Games, surpassed 27-foot mark for first time in his career, and was ranked sixth in world as long jumper, 1987; competed in 1988 and 1992 Olympics; became seventh person in history to jump farther than 28 feet, 1989; ranked Number One in world in long lump, 1990; set world’s record in long jump, World Track & Field Championships, 1991; won Foot Locker Slam Fest basketball dunking title, 1992.
Awards: Ducky Drake Award for most valuable school athlete, UCLA, 1986; silver medal in long jump at 1988 and 1992 Olympics; Sullivan Award for best amateur athlete in U.S., 1991; Jesse Owens International Trophy, 1991; gold medal in long jump, World Track & Field Championships, 1991 and 1993.
Addresses: c/o Team Powell, P.O. Box 8000-354, Alta Loma, CA 91701.
Formerly a high jumper able to surpass the seven-foot hurdle, Powell shifted his concentration to the long jump when he produced a world-class jump of 26 feet 5¼ inches during the first competitive meet of his sophomore season. Powell’s raw talent caused his coach, Blair Clausen, tomark that the young long jumper would eventually have a shot at breaking the world record. While his performances over the next few years showed flashes of brilliance, Powell remained erratic and became known as “Mike Foul” for his tendency to plant his foot past the legal takeoff board during his approach. Throughout this period, he often produced only one or two legal jumps out of every six. As a result, he underachieved at the trials for the Olympics in 1984—and didn’t make the U.S. team.
In 1985, determined to realize his full potential in the long jump, Powell took a sabbatical from college after his junior year so he could pursue a full schedule of international competition. He soon discovered that meet promoters reserved all their interest for the legendary Carl Lewis when it came to the long jump. “All my life I’ve had people tell me I couldn’t do certain things,” Powell recounted in an article in Sports Illustrated. “They said Carl would probably break the record, and I took it as a personal insult. People would tell me right to my face I couldn’t do it, without knowing anything about me. And basically it pissed me off.”
Powell found motivation in the quest to dethrone Lewis, and that year he worked his way up to a top-ten ranking in the event. The following year he transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles, which had one of the powerhouse track and field teams in the country. After graduation he supported himself with various odd jobs that allowed him the flexibility to attend meets and train rigorously.
A key stepping stone to Powell’s ultimate success was his decision to enlist the services of Randy Huntington, who at the time was one of the most sought after track and field coaches in the nation. Powell and Huntington established a five-year plan aimed at conditioning Powell to reach his peak form in time for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Particular focus was given to establishing more consistency and greater acceleration on his approach. Powell turned out to be a good student for Huntington, moving up to a ranking of sixth in the world in 1987. That year he also won his event at the World University Games and broke the 27-foot barrier for the first time in his career.
Fate seemed to deal Powell a bad hand in 1988 when he had to undergo an emergency appendectomy six weeks before the U.S. trials forthe Olympics in Seoul, Korea. But he bounced back quickly and with his final jump of the trials qualified for the U.S. team along with Lewis and Larry Myricks. Although Powell launched the longest jump of his career at Seoul, it was only good enough for the silver medal behind Lewis’s winning performance. But Powell’s showing raised his marquee value for track meets, and his higher appearance fees allowed him to work exclusively on long jumping.
After the ’88 Olympics, Powell took another major step forward in his development by emulating the pedaling motion used by Lewis and Myricks while airborne. The impact of this change was evidenced by his 28 feet ¾ inch leap at the Bruce Jenner Classic meet in San Jose, California, in the spring of 1989. That jump made Powell only the seventh athlete in track and field history to surpass 28 feet. In a subsequent meet in Houston, Powell fouled on a jump that an official said would have equaled the world record. He lost each of the two times he faced Lewis in 1990, even though in one of their meetings he produced what was then a career-best 28 feet 5 inches. However, Powell’s consistent winning when Lewis was not present resulted in him earning a Number-One world ranking in the long jump in 1990. Still, some track and field experts argued that Powell should not have not received the honor, since he had yet to beat Lewis.
Continuing to move ahead in his event, Powell incorporated mental conditioning into his tough physical regimen in order to gain control over his high-strung nature during track meets. He secured the services of a sports psychologist who helped him channel his emotions so that they worked with his physical effort rather than against it. By this time he had developed a habit of drawing on the strength of the crowd by clapping just before his approach and entreating the audience to join in. With rhythmic applause serving as percussion during his charge down the runway, Powell set himself apart from most long jumpers who usually sought silence and would have been distracted by such background noise.
Powell cashed in on Lewis’s absence from the long jump pit in 1991, winning 12 meets leading up to the National Championships held in New York City. Anticipation was great when the two jumpers finally squared off, and what resulted was one of the closest competitions in the history of the event. After Powell landed a seemingly unbeatable 28 foot-7¾ inch jump, his rival came through on his final jump to win by half an inch. Competing at a high altitude in Sestriere, Italy, later that year, Powell generated two 29-foot foul jumps, plus a wind-aided leap of 28 feet 7¾ inches.
Another showdown with Lewis came at the 1991 World Championships held in Tokyo in August. Thriving on the high visibility of the competition, Powell was never more pumped up for a meet. However, Lewis’s own confidence was fueled by his having broken the world record in the 100-meter dash five days before the Tokyo event. By this time Lewis had surpassed the 28-foot barrier in the long jump 56 times, while Powell had done so only on a few occasions. Powell was so hyped up that he hyperventilated before his first jump and produced a lackluster 25 feet 9¼ inches. After the first round he was in eighth place, while Lewis was sitting pretty with a jump of 28 feet 5¾ inches that was among the 15 best in history.
What followed for Lewis was the most amazing second-place effort in the history of track and field. He had a series of five jumps over 28 feet, including three of 29 feet or better. But it was all for naught as Powell soared 29 feet 4½ inches with a legal wind to secure the victory and the world’s record. During the historic attempt, Powell reached a height of almost seven feet during his flight into the pit. Lewis showed little grace in defeat and resented the fact that his output had made him the runner-up in the World Championships. According to the New York Times, he told reporters afterwards, “It was the greatest jump of his [Powell’s] life and he may never do it again.”
Powell was deluged with demands for interviews and offers for endorsement contracts after his triumph, and they took their toll on his training schedule. Although he was able to increase his appearance fee from $10,000 to $50,000 per meet, he failed to reach even 27 feet in his next four outings. As a result of lucrative endorsement contracts with Nike, Foot Locker, and RayBan sunglasses, his annual income soared into the seven figures in 1992. He also received the prestigious Sullivan Award for his performance in 1991, the honor given to the year’s most outstanding amateur athlete.
Some critics had agreed with Lewis that the jump may have been a fluke—until Powell jumped 28 feet 7¾ inches and 29 feet 2½ inches in Modesto, California, in May of 1992. After he hurt his back and hamstring muscle, he had to stop jumping for a month and was unable to train until five days before the trials for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. Nevertheless, he beat Lewis and won the trials with a jump of 28 feet 3¾ inches. Lewis, however, got his revenge in Barcelona, leaving Powell with his second silver medal in two consecutive Olympics when he beat him by 1¼ inches.
With Lewis no longer competing in the long jump, Powell dominated the event after the 1992 Olympics. In 1993 he was undefeated in 25 meets and bettered 27 feet a total of 23 times. In contrast, Lewis won only 10 times in the best long-jumping season of his career. Powell easily won the World Championships at Stuttgart, Germany, in 1993 with a 28 foot-2 inch effort. He produced four of the longest jumps of the event and beat his closest competitor by more than a foot. His effort was one of the biggest romps at a world-class meet in the history of the long jump.
Mike Powell has become part of the pantheon of track and field. Few performers in the sport have shown such enthusiasm for their event; nor have they been so certain of their ability to triumph. As he told the New York Times, “When someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m pretty sure I’m going to do it soon.” With the amazing career of Carl Lewis serving as a target and a source for his motivation, Powell reached for the stars and got them.
Chicago Tribune, June 19, 1992, Section IV, p. 1.
Detroit Free Press, August 7, 1992, p. D1.
Jet, February 3, 1992, p. 51.
New York Times, August 31, 1991, pp. 27, 30; September 1, 1991, p. 52; June 25, 1992, p. B19.
People, September 16, 1991, p. 64.
Sports Illustrated, September 9, 1991, pp. 14-19; September 16, 1991, pp. 36-39.
Track & Field News, November 1991, p. 31; November 1993, p. 30; January 1994, pp. 13, 37.
USA Weekend, July 17-19, 1992, p. 4.
Washington Post, July 22, 1992, p. F5.
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