At Long Last

For Mike Powell, the man who broke Bob Beamon's long jump record, becoming a sudden hero required years of perseverance
September 15, 1991

He would sit all alone in his living room, often for hours at a time, waiting until the daylight had drained out of the walls and the room was cool and dark. That way he could see the dream better, as if it were a movie whose image fades in the light. When the hairs finally began to stand up on the back of his neck, Mike Powell would walk slowly to the back of the house, turn, then wait until he could sec it squarely in front of him again.

He would come bounding out of the TV room, turn left after he passed through the foyer, then make another sharp left as he entered the living room. "By the time I got to the dining room I would jump, and I would visualize myself breaking the world record," Powell says. Of course, this became more complicated after he bought a dining table a few months ago. Sometimes he would break the world record; sometimes he would break the world record and a salad plate.

The record was Bob Beamon's long jump mark of 29'2½", set during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, and for nearly a quarter of a century shrouded in the thin air and heavy breathing of incense and mythology. To break such a record would require from a man a perfect leap of faith. "Sometimes I would just be sitting there on the couch, and all of a sudden here came Mike," says Karen Koellner, Powell's girlfriend of three years. "He would come running through the living room, take off, then the minute he landed he'd throw his hands in the air and start jumping up and down. He always broke the record. Every time."

Powell never deprived himself of the elation the moment would bring. "I could actually feel it, feel the rush in my head," he says. "I've imagined that moment in my living room a hundred times."

Powell's moment finally arrived three weeks ago at the World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo, where in a single instant he raised the world record in the long jump to 29'4½" and raised his unlikely dream—Powell's previous best jump in competition was a wind-aided 28'7¾"—to a full-blooded reality. "I've been dreaming about this for two years, and when I'd tell people, they would laugh in my face," says Powell. "Nobody gave me credit. So not to say 'In your face,' but...In your face."

Powell also did some jumping in his Tokyo hotel room, leaping past potted plants and lacquered furniture to so many world records that the people in the room below his no doubt had a vision of Powell, too—in hell with his back broken.

It had been two years since Powell first realized that the record was within his reach. One of the judges at a meet he had competed at in Houston walked over to where he was sitting after a particularly long foul and told Powell his jump had measured 29'2½". Powell's problems gauging his approach to the takeoff board became so well known that the other jumpers called him Mike Foul. Sometimes he would land only one or two legal jumps in his six attempts.

"Mike is an emotional jumper," says Randy Huntington, Powell's coach. "His technique often depends on the height of his emotions." His unchecked adrenaline rushes finally became so troubling that last year Powell consulted a psychologist, who worked with him on containing his emotions during competition. He is still not the perfect master of his feelings, as he proved in Tokyo when he hyperventilated so badly before his first jump in the final round that he went only 25'9¼", nearly three feet short of Carl Lewis's first jump. "I was so hyped up to beat Carl, I couldn't even breathe," Powell says.

Lewis had not lost a long jump competition in 10 years, but Powell, who was 0 for 15 against him, had drawn to within half an inch of his more famous rival at the TAC championships in New York City three months ago. "That was the clincher," Powell says. "After that I told a lot of people I was going to get him the next time we met." That meeting should have happened in August in Sestierre, Italy, but Lewis withdrew, complaining of a bad back when the weather suddenly turned cold and damp. "He ran from me in Sestierre," Powell says. "If you're going to be a champion, you have to be a champion under all conditions, not just when everything's going your way." Powell says that two of his fouls in Italy were measured at more than 29 feet, and by the time he left Europe and headed for Tokyo, his low personal regard for Lewis had turned into an indignation he scarcely bothered to suppress.

In Tokyo, Lewis suggested that the feeling was mutual with his customary mix of brilliance and hauteur, both by jumping 29 feet or farther three times and by glaring at Powell as the latter prepared to jump. "It was almost like he was proclaiming he was the king," Powell says. "Carl's been at the top for so long, I think this was the first time somebody had challenged him, not only in the pit, but in the little mental games that we play with each other. I Lake it as a challenge if somebody's going to put something like that in my face."

Lewis unleashed a wind-aided jump of 29'2¾" in the fourth round—exceeding Beamon's mark by a quarter of an inch, though it would not qualify as a world record—then bounded out of the pit, his face twisted in a knot of rage as he thrust his arms in the air. Powell still can't watch the tape of this outburst without leaping to his feet and bouncing around his den like a pinball. In Tokyo, Powell responded with the world record on his next jump, wearing, as always, both his heart and his adrenal gland on his sleeve. "I felt the way you do when you're about to get into a fight," he says. "That's how mad I was."

Powell has made a career of being overlooked, underestimated and disrespected. "All my life I've had people tell me I couldn't do certain things," he says. "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."

Even after he had shattered Beamon's epochal record and Lewis's decade-long winning streak, Powell was stung by Lewis's graceless remarks during a press conference at which he dismissed the enormity of Powell's feat by pointing out, "I had the greatest series of all time. He had just one jump. He may never do it again...." Powell likens his relationship with Lewis to two boxers sparring. "I can give Carl his due," he says, bouncing on his toes and flicking a left jab into the air, "because he is great." Powell throws a left-right combination. "And I can also say what I really think about him," he says, launching an uppercut, "but Carl doesn't want to give anybody else any credit."

Powell shouldn't have any trouble getting credit now that he suddenly has the prospect of making plenty of cash. The night of his jump he was up until 3 a.m. fielding questions from the media and doing live satellite hookups with his mother and sister back home in California for the benefit of TV; then he was awakened at 4 a.m. by a call from a radio station in Mexico City, again at 5 a.m. by a Denver station and at 7 a.m. by one of the network affiliates in Los Angeles that wanted him on a talk show the next night. When he got back to his home in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., there were 45 messages on his answering machine, many from a swarm of sponsors and agents who suddenly wanted to buy a piece of posterity.

His first night home, Sunday, Sept. 1, was actually spent in a Beverly Hills hotel so that he could be up by 4 a.m. Monday for a live appearance with Beamon on CBS This Morning. The phone rarely stopped ringing with offers, and by the time Powell showed up at UCLA's Drake Stadium for a Tuesday afternoon press conference with about 25 members of the L.A. media, he had gotten no more than three consecutive hours of sleep since the jump. While holding court in the long jump pit so that a sponsor's logo could be prominently displayed behind him, Powell turned to friends several times and said, "I think I'm going to pass out."

By Wednesday the barrage of phone calls had become so relentless that Powell was already questioning how hard he should try to cash in on his new celebrity. "I want my life back," he told one friend who called. He has already raised his appearance fee from $10,000 to about $50,000 per meet, and last week he got a quick education in how to place a value on his record. "Realistically, it should mean millions," says Powell, who made $200,000 last year, almost none of it from the sorts of endorsements that have made Lewis a wealthy man. "The opportunities are there now for me to make a lot of money, but I want to slow things down. I don't have to be Bo Jackson. I only need so much money to get by on." Someday Powell hopes to become a schoolteacher, at which time his dreams of penury will no doubt come true. In the meantime he may have to settle for modest riches.

That would be in sharp contrast to the life he has led for five years on the track and field circuit, particularly in Europe, where some promoters simply didn't bother to hold a long jump competition if Lewis didn't show up at the meet. In 1985 Powell got stiffed by a European promoter who decided he hadn't jumped well enough. "I was really happy to be getting the $800 I had been promised, but when I didn't jump 25 feet, he wouldn't pay me," Powell recalls. "That was life at the bottom of the barrel. At one time I had to beg to get into meets, and now they have to open the safe door to get me there. It's kind of weird, but a good weird." This season Powell is jumping at a meet organized by that same promoter. "I'm going to put a serious dent in his budget this time," he says.

The money was never as important to Powell as the lack of respect he felt he encountered at almost every stop on the circuit, particularly when compared with the treatment given the Santa Monica Track Club—of which Lewis is the star member. "We would go to meets and be treated like second-class citizens compared to the Santa Monica group," Huntington says. "They always set themselves apart, and they were treated like movie stars by the meet organizers." Powell was contemptuous of the Santa Monica club's elitism, and yet it both infuriated and depressed him that the club had never invited him to be a member. As Powell says, "Santa Monica is made up almost entirely of the good people from the University of Houston and the good people from UCLA. And I was a good person from UCLA. But I guess I'm not good enough to be with them, because they obviously didn't want me in their club."

To be fair, UCLA hadn't really wanted Powell, either. Powell graduated from Edgewood High in suburban Los Angeles, where his family moved from Philadelphia when he was 11. He played point guard on the Edgewood basketball team and delighted in dunking over opposing centers. "I was 6'1", 150 pounds and springs," he says. He high-jumped seven feet in high school and was one of the top triple and long jumpers in the state. But few colleges recruited him. "Even people I had beaten were getting better scholarship offers than I was," Powell says. "I couldn't understand it. I had a 3.2 grade point average, scored over 1,000 on my SATs and made academic All-America. Maybe they thought the skinny kid just got lucky."

He went to UC Irvine to play basketball and compete in track and field, but had to give up basketball when he found it overlapped too much with the track season. After long jumping 26'5¼" his sophomore year, Powell began to devote all his attention to that event, and by his senior year he had proved himself sufficiently that he was able to transfer to UCLA. He won the silver medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, although only—as The New York Times hastened to point out—because it was not possible for Lewis, who had the three longest jumps of the games, to be awarded all three medals.

"Carl always being out there gave him something he could reach for—a line in the sand," Huntington says. Beamon's record was another matter. Lewis had dominated the event for so long that almost no one, including Beamon himself, even considered the possibility that someone other than Lewis would be the first to cross that 23-year-old line in the sand. Beamon knew so little of Powell that during the U.S. Olympic Festival in Los Angeles this summer, he got up to leave just as Powell was about to jump. "I remember seeing him walking out of the stadium when I was on the runway," Powell said after breaking the record. "I took personal offense at that. I was thinking, Don't walk out when I'm on the runway."

Powell finally met Beamon before their CBS This Morning appearance, and the two later sat and talked over breakfast for three hours. "I'd never met the guy before in my life, but we hugged each other hard, and then he started crying and told me he loved me," Powell says. "The feeling was indescribable. I think if I hadn't been so numb from lack of sleep, I would have started crying, too." And he accepted Beamon's explanation of the apparent snub at the Olympic Festival: Beamon simply hadn't followed the sport closely enough to know who Powell was. The two scarcely spoke of the record jump that morning, but Powell felt something more important than words pass between them. "I think he carried around a tremendous burden for 23 years, and that day was like having a weight lifted from his shoulders," Powell says. "It felt like he was passing the torch on to me."

Powell is eager to prove the record-breaking jump was not a fluke, and he would like nothing better than to back it up by winning the gold medal at the Olympics in Barcelona next year. "I've learned how to jump that far now," he says. "When you're running that hard, it's difficult to transfer your speed upward, but I know I have to jump high if I'm going to go far. I've learned how to manipulate my body upward." He has already gone high and far, and now all that remains to be seen is how much higher and farther his dreams can take him.

PHOTOMIKE POWELL/ALLSPORTThe day after he broke the record, Powell shared his joy with well-wishers in Tokyo. PHOTOBRAD TRENT/OUTLINEWhen they met, Powell sensed that Beamon (right) was now, finally, unburdened.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)