Houston Sports Hall of Fame 2020: Carl Lewis' legendary journey began at UH
Updated: Jan 14
First in a series
He made a career out of brilliant moments.
A man who took your breath away as he glided down a track, then found another gear just as he crossed the finish line; an athlete whose combination of grace and power had you shaking your head as he launched himself into the air and floated across sand to another improbable finish.
Yes, we’re talking Carl Lewis.
The man who patented the impossible. A multitalented superstar who equaled Jesse Owens’ four Olympic gold medals on his first try; an athlete whose career spanned more than two decades, four Olympic Games and nine gold medals.
An athlete so dominant, he was named Sports Illustrated’s Athlete of the Century. A man who thrived on being as mysterious and enigmatic off the track as he was unbeatable on it.
It’s hard to imagine that Lewis, a member of the Houston Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2020 presented by PNC Bank who will be inducted Jan. 21 along with Mary Lou Retton and Rudy Tomjanovich, was ever shy, yet that’s how he describes himself as an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Houston.
“I’m from a small town in New Jersey and there’s zero percent chance that I could have ever thought my career would be what it was,’’ Lewis said.
“Even the dreams that I had, I exceeded it tenfold. And to think that I came here as an 18-year-old young man very, very shy with big dreams and was able to get into a big city like this, make a difference, become a part of it and it has become a part of me so much so that people walk up to me all the time in stores and place and say, 'What high school did you go to again?'’’
“If I didn’t come here, you wouldn’t know me.’’
It sounds funny, but he’s right.
If his dream school UCLA hadn’t ignored him. If Arizona or Tennessee or Kansas or Villanova had felt right. If a coach at UH named Tom Tellez hadn’t seen something special in him. And if the Cougars’ coach hadn’t shown him a way to adapt his jumping technique to solve a painful knee injury….
Lewis’ entire career turned around during his junior year of high school. A late bloomer, he called himself. A skinny kid who had yet to win a state title, he wound up running 9.3 in the 100 and jumping 25 feet, 9 inches in the long jump at an Age Group Nationals meet in Memphis.
“That was the time when I said I could get to the next level,’’ he said.
A year later, he was sitting in Tellez’ office.
‘I kinda knew what I wanted but as a kid at that age, you don’t really say 'I want to break the world record; I want to be the greatest of all time,'’’ Lewis said. “I talked to him about the jumping. Of course, he’s never seen me. There’s no video. No nothing. All he knows are my times and what I jumped.
“He started showing me video of other jumpers and that’s what impressed me. The other schools I went to talked about the school, how great it was. I had amazing visits, but it wasn’t about me, it was about them. So, when he said that, it made the decision extremely difficult because now (UH) went from not even thought of to that really might be the one. But Houston was so far off the map that it wasn’t even close. They had no program. The facilities were a cinder track. It was like there’s no way you’re going there.’’
But on Easter Sunday of his senior year in high school, he decided to sign with UH. There, he took his gifts and redefined himself by pushing the limits of what most thought was impossible.
A few months later, Tellez was heading the U.S. Nationals and convinced Lewis, who was supposed to run in another meet, to sign up and come along.
Lewis had finished his senior year by winning a state title and setting a high school record. At nationals, he was in second place in the long jump going into the sixth round when another jumper passed him.
The top two finishers made the Pan Am Games team. Before his final jump, his mother told him it would be OK no matter what happened. He said no, it isn’t OK. He was going to Pan Ams.
“It wasn’t even like confidence,’’ he said. “It was like this kid was given a toy and they said give it back and I’m like, 'No, you’re not taking it back.'
“So, I went down there and passed him and made it. At the time, it was more being naïve more than anything. It just happened so fast, I didn’t have time to stop and think look how great I am.’’
It was only the start.
Lewis made his first Olympic team at 18 — the youngest one on the team — but that was 1980, the year the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games after the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
Four years later, Lewis was the center of attention in Los Angeles — a superstar who was trying to tie Owens’ mark of four golds at the 1936 Games. Owens was one of Lewis’ idols, a man who inspired him for his talent and the racial equality battles he fought.
Lewis, then 22, had decided back in 1981 to try for all four events and he and Tellez had a game plan. The pressure, the attention was unbelievable.
“Looking back now, I don’t know how I withstood the pressure,’’ Lewis said. “To be 22 years old. To be on the cover of every magazine on earth forever. I was on Newsweek's cover two weeks in a row, Time two weeks in a row, GQ and everything.
“So, when I finally got down there, and everyone’s saying, can you get four? And questions like what if you get three golds and a silver? It had become that absurd.’’
The key was that first race — the 100 meters. And Lewis cruised.
“When I crossed the line in the 100, it was relief because that was the toughest event,’’ he said. “I felt like I could win the 200 and the long jump is my baby. I’m not losing that.
“And if we don’t drop the stick, this relay’s a wrap. I knew that. So, getting past the 100 was really more of a relief. I was like ‘My goodness. I got it.’”
When it came to marketing himself, Lewis was decades ahead of his time. He understood the branding and all the little things that went with it — the hair, the style, the clothing — and the fine line between confidence and arrogance that he walked the rest of his career.
And then there was the mystery.
“I remember I used to stay in my hotel room all the time and never come out because I wanted to be mysterious,’’ Lewis said. “What is he doing? What’s going on? I wouldn’t arrive until it was time for the meet.’’
It was part of the brand.
“The one thing I wish? I wish I had had social media,’’ Lewis said. “I would have loved to have Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all that stuff. My whole career would be different. I would have been amazing at social media when I ran because back in the ‘80s I was branding.’’
When he met stars like Michael Jackson, Prince Quincy Jones and Al Jarreau, Lewis was asking them how to be a star.
“Just think if I had social media to tell my story in my way…’’ he said. “It was different back then. You told your story to the media and the media interpreted it. Now you can tell your own story.’’
Dealing with the fame wasn’t easy. And Lewis saw it something that came along with a responsibility to force change. He started pushing back on amateur rules that limited Olympians from making money.
“It was difficult and contentious in a lot of cases and I did things right and wrong,’’ he said. “And they did things right and wrong. It was very, very difficult and challenging. But I kept the single focus of if I keep getting better and better and I keep pushing for what I think is right, making us professional, then we’ll be fine.’’