Nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis did not remember his first visit to Wichita until the current Houston track and field head coach returned this week for the American Athletic Conference outdoor championships.
That’s when someone told Lewis, now 57, that his name was still listed in the program.
Sure enough, nearly 40 years later, Lewis still owns the Cessna Stadium record in the men’s long jump with a mark of 27 feet, 6¼ inches set in 1982. When he saw the year, the memories started rushing back to Lewis when he was competing in the summer for the Santa Monica Track Club.
“I don’t really remember much, but I remember the environment and I remember the situation,” Lewis said. “At 57, I don’t remember last week. But it is great and exciting to see my name still in certain stadiums for things that I did. I had a great career and I really enjoyed it and now I’m having fun coaching the athletes here (at Houston).”
Back in 1982, Lewis was fast on his ascent as one of the top sprinters and long jumpers in the world. It was two years before he would go on to win four gold medals at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but Lewis was already making his name known with his performances as a 21-year-old.
A mark of 27-6¼ in the long jump is almost a foot off his personal best, but Lewis remembers being motivated in Wichita because he was jumping poorly.
“I was determined not to jump 26 feet,” Lewis said. “I jumped (27-6¼) on my last jump because I was so determined not to leave here without jumping 27.”
In true Wichita fashion, Lewis also recalled the weather from that summer night.
“I remember going back to the hotel after the meet and then there was this big hail storm, like golf ball-sized hail,” said Lewis, who is from New Jersey. “I had never seen hail like that.”
There is actually another Wichita connection to Lewis, as WSU head track and field coach Steve Rainbolt, a former track athlete for Kansas, was Lewis’ host for his official recruiting visit in Lawrence when Lewis was a high school senior in 1979.
Ultimately, Lewis decided to go to Houston.
But the two reconnected when Lewis arrived in Wichita, as Lewis had dinner at Rainbolt’s house earlier this week and shared track and field stories from each other’s careers.
“I’m sure he didn’t remember me, but we reacquainted and it’s been a real neat deal,” Rainbolt said. “He became bigger than life as an athlete back then and now he’s just one of the coaches in our league. He’s really a very down-to-earth guy who’s terrific to be around.”
That still doesn’t diminish the star factor when Lewis attends a meet.
While other coaches are competitors, they are also fans of the sport and view Lewis as one of, if not the top legend in track and field.
“He was special on a different level,” Rainbolt said. “If you’re going to go out and have a beverage with your friends and have a discussion about the greatest athlete in the history of the world in track and field, he’s got to be in the conversation. If you want to have a discussion about the greatest athlete in any sport in the history of the world, he’s got to be in the discussion.”
Throughout the three days of competition, meet officials and athletes from other schools nervously approached Lewis in search of a picture or an autograph.
After two decades since his retirement, Lewis is astonished but honored that he still has fans.
“I haven’t competed for 22 years now, so for kids 17, 18-years-old to recognize me that’s pretty amazing,” Lewis said. “I just try to make sure I do what I think is right, work hard for the kids and give back when I can. I have a youth track club and then I still help out with my high school (in New Jersey).
“Coaching in Houston has given me a chance to stay connected with the young people and the Internet gave me a chance to be known to all of them. It’s great and I”m having fun.”