Nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis stopped by Milton Hershey School Saturday afternoon to help at the Hershey’s Track and Field Games North American Final. Shippensburg News-Chronicle sports writer Nick Gueguen caught up with Lewis for an interview. Lewis is one of four Olympians to win nine golds, joining fellow American Mark Spitz, Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi and former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.
Question: So I’ve read a little bit of your accomplishments, undefeated for (nearly) a decade in the long jump and four medals at the 1984 Olympics. What have been some of the biggest highlights of your career?
Answer: Well, those are two of them, really. I knew that I wasn’t going to win five in a game, so that really is, and thank goodness I did it at a young age and had that to shoot for the rest of my career. That’s definitely a highlight, and of course, some of the world records were great, but really the four gold medals and the four in a row in the long jump. That was really good because that was something that just kind of happened, I didn’t really plan it. It just happened.
Lewis won gold in the 100-meter dash, the 200 dash, the 4x100 relay and the long jump at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Lewis ran the 100 dash in 9.9 seconds to win by an unprecedented 8 feet. He won the 200 dash in 19.80 seconds, and he ran his leg of the 4x1 in 8.94 seconds. He took the long jump gold medal with a 28 feet, 1/4 inch jump on his first try. He won 65 straight long jump competitions during his near-decade long undefeated streak from 1983-1991.
Question: What did you do to keep your winning alive during that (near) decade-long streak? You obviously had to keep pushing yourself harder and harder each time.
Answer: My competitor was excellence. I never really focused on the competitors. I was focused on better, better, better. When an event was over, we didn’t say ‘Congratulations, you won!’ I said, ‘Well, what did I do, and how do we make it better?’ So that was it, I was always working on performance and by having that attitude, it allowed me to be like a moving target because when everyone said, ‘OK, Carl ran 10 flat,’ I wanted to be No. 1 and run a 9, and I did a 9.95, so that was kind of the idea.
Question: And critiquing yourself like that constantly, how well do you think that helped you out in your career?
Answer: Well, it was something that worked. My coach, coach Tom Tellez, told me his philosophy was to focus on me staying in the moment and staying at the time, and it was without question. And I don’t know that I would have won four in a row in the long jump without that attitude because honestly, it didn’t even occur to me that I was winning four in a row until about a year before Atlanta because I just went to the Olympics the next year and tried to win again. I never thought about it, I kept winning long jump year after year.
Question: And what were some of your favorite events to do during your track and field career?
Answer: Oh, oh, oh I was a long jumper, there’s no question. The long jump was my No. 1 event, hands down, and then the hundred meters, the second that I enjoyed, and then the relays and the 200, if you had to do in that order, although I loved the 200. But, I like the camaraderie of the relays because I’ve always done relays. There is no question that the long jump is my best event.
Question: And you mentioned some of those world records you had set. What were some of the most memorable for you? I mean I’m sure they’re all pretty memorable in your mind. What were some of the most?
Answer: Uh, the first one that I set was indoors in Dallas, Tex., when I was still at the University of Houston. That was my first one, and I didn’t really get it then. I just did it and then said, ‘Oh, OK,’ and I was only 19 years old, and I was this young kid. The Tokyo 100 meters, I ran 9.86. I was the first one to run 9.8, so that was a big, big, big deal. And another one, the indoor long jump in New York, I came from behind in my last jump to set the record in ’81, and it still stands. Even that record still stands, so I guess those are probably my three biggest ones.
Lewis jumped 28 feet, 10 inches in the indoor long jump at the Wanamaker Millrose Games inside Madison Square Garden in New York on Feb. 3, 1984. He still holds that record today.
Question: And that record that still stands, what’s that mean to you to see that it still stands today?
Answer: I’m angry because I want someone to break it. Really, I mean I’m like ‘What’s wrong with you long jumpers? Get into it!’ because I have a motto, ‘Records are borrowed, and medals are owned.’ So I’m borrowing this record, but they want to try to make me own the record. I mean it’s almost 30 years, and it’s kind of time for someone to break it, so I hope someone breaks it soon.
Question: And throughout all the success you’ve had in your career, what kept you grounded and able to just keep pushing yourself harder like you did?
Answer: Well, I had three things. I had wonderful parents that were very supportive and influential growing up. And also, they went from parents who were influential and kind of guided us to advisors. When I got older, into my twenties, they were advisors, and still, I call my mother for advice on decisions in business and sports because she’s really active in that. And then, I had the greatest coach of the 20th century, Tom Tellez, and I had great teammates. I had, in terms of the sprints, one of the top sprinters of all time, Leroy Burrell, as my teammate. Floyd Heard, Mike Marsh, all of them were record holders. I trained with them every day, and we were great friends and still are good friends, so I think the relationships was a very important part of it as well.
Question: And what sparked your interest in track and field?
Answer: It was where I was supposed to be. I mean I did everything. I did gymnastics, obviously track and field, I swam, I played baseball, played soccer for six years. This was where I was supposed to be.
Question: The experience in those other sports, how did those help you in track and field?
Answer: Well, I don’t know that they helped me in track and field, per se, other than the fact that I did multiple sports. I think it’s great for all kids to do that because it develops the whole body, and you’re not pressured. It can stay fun. When track was over, I would go and play soccer because up here in the Northeast, it’s in the fall, so I’d run track in the spring and then, I’d play soccer in the fall. In the winter, we kind of had it down. I think it’s good for everyone to do multiple sports because it develops all muscle groups, and it gets you off the pressure of one sport.
Question: And I’ve looked at a lot of media reports from the times you were in track and field, and many people write about how you weren’t always the most humble guy. How did you react to those reports?
Answer: You know what, I know exactly what’s in every (one). They were trying to win a race, I was trying to change a sport, so we were on a different plane in a lot of cases. When I was very young, and I used to go to track meets, I would arrive in Europe, and I’d go to my room, and I would stay there for two days. You wouldn’t see me for two days, and they said, ‘Oh, you’re so aloof.’ You know, I couldn’t go anywhere because everywhere I went it was a production. I went to four Olympic games. I was never able to go to one single sport outside of my sport because of the drama. You see, it’s different now because of the way security is. When people travel, security and people that are handlers, that’s normal now. There was none of that back in the 80s. I had to manage that myself. So, if I wanted to just go to a mall in Europe, then I had to call personal security to take me because I could not go. So it was easier for me to stay in my room and do whatever. And when I was in competition, I was focused on doing many, many things, many layers. So, I could just give you examples, when track meets were over, I would stay two or three hours at receptions when everyone else went back and had dinner and went to bed. Or I shot commercials at midnight because the promoter didn’t have enough money to pay the athletes. So they said, ‘You shoot a commercial, we’ll give you half of that, and we’ll give the meet half, so now they can afford to have the whole meet.’ But they didn’t know that. And then I’d give them from midnight to five in the morning and then catch the same flight at 9:00 in the morning, but I was aloof because I didn’t hang out with them. So, it comes down to a really clear thing. They were going to win a track meet, I was trying to change the sport, and so I don’t even expect them to understand it, so then when they’re asking other athletes, when reporters are asking athletes, ‘What’s he like?’ ‘Well, he’s never around. He’s not around us, he’s not this, he’s not that,’ you know, that creates a story.
Question: And who were some of those sponsors that you’d do late-night commercials and other work for?
Answer: I had over 100 commercials. I did a midnight commercial this week. This year, I have Panasonic, I have a sponsor with Nike, I work with the Hershey kids. Five television deals, even now, 16 years after I retired, so it’s always doing something, and I’m just trying to promote the sport, just promote the brand of track and field. I’m doing commercials every year, appearances every year, so it’s been pretty busy.
Question: And you’ve been in many Olympic competitions. Just talk about the spectacle and what it meant for you personally to be able to compete in the Olympics.
Answer: Well, it’s two things, and I guess the easiest way to describe it is I was talking to the head relay coach. In the last Olympics, we dropped the baton, men and women, and everyone was just so incensed about that because that’s it. But just to give you an example, I went and spoke to the relay coach this time, and I said, ‘Let me tell you something. You sit down and you get those athletes. The reason they dropped the baton is because they’re not focused on the race, they’re focused on each other.’ And I said, ‘When you run around on that track, you’re carrying America’s baton, not yours. That’s the Olympics. You’re carrying America’s baton, and that’s the great thing about it because you’re not just running for yourself, you’re running for the United States, and that’s what you feel, and that’s the great thing about the games.’
Question: And how did you get involved with stuff like this and working with Hershey’s kids?
Answer: Well, I was involved. I was one of these kids years ago, and Hershey reached out to me and asked me if I was interested, and I said yes. I remember these kinds of events, and it kind of takes you back to that time. Any one of those kids could have been me, and any one of those kids could be me one day. So, I really relate to them, and I’m just happy to be here with all of them.
Question: And when did you start to get involved with this?
Answer: Seven years ago. This is my seventh year.