Summer 2019 will mark 35 years since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Carl Lewis, a man who spent much of his career racing the clock for world records, is still unable to believe how quickly time passes.
“It’s insane that it’s gone by that quick,” he says, chuckling. “I’m 57 and I don’t know when this happened.”
Lewis won four gold medals in Los Angeles, matching the feat Jesse Owens accomplished in 1936. For Lewis, it was the start of an exquisite Olympic career that included 10 medals (nine gold) and spanned four Games. Asked what he remembers most about L.A., Lewis reflected in a phone interview this week, “Honestly, this sounds weird, [but] I don’t remember a lot. The stress level was so high…There was no time to even stop and think about it.”
With four events on his program in L.A., a then-23-year-old Lewis started the Games with four straight days of competition, competing in the prelims and final of the 100m and long jump. On his first day off, he got a haircut. Then came the 200m final, one more day off, and two days of relay competition. At the end of it, Lewis had gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and the long jump.
Lewis thought then that he’d retire in his 20s. But he continued to run with the Santa Monica track club, and after winning two more gold medals at his second Olympics in 1988, and then another two in 1992, “there [were] all these guys younger than me. I finished ’92 and said, ‘I’m still running with them, still as fast as them, so let’s just keep running until I can’t anymore. Without them, there’s absolutely no way it could’ve happened.”
At age 35, he won a final gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta in his signature event, the long jump.
“I’m the luckiest Olympian ever,” Lewis says. “My first Games were in L.A., my hometown… And my last were in my home country.”
When he looks back at his Olympic accomplishments, Lewis says the first and the last medals he won are particularly memorable.
“To come back and do that [win long jump gold in Atlanta] at that age, that one really means a lot,” he says. “The reality is if I didn’t win the 100m in L.A., it all would’ve stopped…The most endearing one was the last one but the most important one without question was the first one.”
Lewis’ last competitive season was 1997. Before the Texas Relays that year, he was waiting at home for a floral delivery and told his teammates to leave for Austin without him. He’d catch up. “I ended up waiting for my plants…and then I thought, it’s time to retire if your plants are more important,” he says.
Lewis remains involved in track and field, now as a coach. After moving back to Texas in 2013, he started working as an assistant coach at the University of Houston, his alma mater.
Lewis never thought he would coach – he had too many other things he wanted to do outside of track. But after Leroy Burrell – a longtime friend, 1992 Olympic teammate and the head coach at Houston – approached him about it, he quickly saw an opportunity to grow sprinting talent at the collegiate level to help athletes reach their full potential.
Lewis says he sometimes feels even more emotionally invested watching his athletes than he did during his own competitions. “One thing was joy, this is pride,” he says. “I really feel happy that I’m helping someone else have that experience… I’ve had more emotions, high and low, coaching than I did [as an athlete].”
Lewis no longer runs – he was never much of a jogger, he says. Instead, he rides his bike around the neighborhood and even takes trapeze and aerial silks classes. When he isn’t coaching, he is a leader of the Perfect Method, a program designed to help athletes and coaches maximize performance. He’s also plenty busy keeping up with his granddaughter, Sapphire McKinley, who is two.
When Los Angeles hosts the Olympics for the third time in 2028, Lewis could be back at the Coliseum as a coach in the same place his Olympic story began 44 years earlier.
“That’s the interesting thing,” he says. “Back in that same stadium, trying to help someone do what I did.”
Lewis will be appearing on “Undeniable with Dan Patrick” on Wednesday night.