Carl Lewis Might Be the Greatest Sprinter Ever, but He Just Can't Seem to Keep His Feet on the Ground

UPDATED 05/17/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/17/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

Ever since Bob Beamon accomplished track's Greatest Leap Forward, jumping an astonishing 29 feet 2½ inches at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, long jumpers have been divided into two groups: Beamon and everyone else. Now there are three categories: Beamon, Carl Lewis and everyone else. Someday soon the 6'2", 175-pound Lewis, a student at the University of Houston, expects to best Beamon. "I have the ability and I know how to do it," he says confidently. "It's just a matter of time."

Lewis, 20, has already established himself as one of the most gifted athletes of his generation. Last year he became the first man since his idol Jesse Owens in 1936 to win the U.S. and NCAA championships in both the long jump and the 100-meter dash. In addition, he set a national collegiate record of 10 seconds flat for the 100 meters, broke his own world indoor record in the long jump with a leap of 28 feet 1 inch, and became the first track performer since Bruce Jenner in 1976 to win the annual Sullivan Award as the year's top amateur athlete.

Although Lewis has come within a mere five-hundredths of a second of running the fastest 100 meters in history (the record, 9.95 seconds, was set by Jim Hines of the U.S. in 1968), he prefers jumping to the more glamorous sprints. The events, of course, are not unrelated: It is Lewis' swiftness in approaching the jump that enables him to get the distance he does. "If I jump about the same as someone else, but get to the takeoff a tenth of a second quicker, I'll beat him," he says matter-of-factly. Yet what fascinates Lewis, whose ankle and knee joints crackle and pop because of harmless cartilage slippage, is the intricacy of good jumping technique. For each leap, he hits the takeoff bar after a precisely measured 146-foot 6-inch, 21-stride approach. So intense is his concentration that he is barely aware of the midair ballet of churning legs and flailing arms that follows. "It's amazing," he says, "almost like being unconscious. I feel it when I hit the board and when I come down. Nothing else."

If the thrill seems almost too esoteric, Lewis needn't worry about lack of understanding at home. His sister, Carol, 18, a freshman at Houston, holds the national junior record in the long jump, at 21 feet 8 inches; his mother, Evelyn Lawler, was a world-class hurdler who made it as far as the 1952 Olympics trials; and his father, Bill, was a long jumper and football star at Tuskegee Institute. The elder Lewises now teach and coach track at rival high schools in Willingboro, N.J.

As children, Carl and Carol spent hours in the jumping pits as their parents worked with kids who were older. At home the children set up makeshift hurdles around the yard and vied for Bill and Evelyn's college medals as make-believe prizes. Later, says Carl, his parents spent everything they had to make sure he and Carol got to meets to compete. "They just got carpet at home last year," he says. "Now they can sit back and be proud of us, I hope."

Both Carl and Carol won places on the 1980 Olympic team that was kept from Moscow by the Afghanistan boycott, and both have their sights set on the '84 Games in Los Angeles. "In track," says Carl, a broadcasting major, "you have a one-time shot, and that's the Olympics. You hope you do well there and that some big company wants to hire a gold medal winner." For now, though, Carl's most unqualified endorsement goes to himself. "Now that I'm getting closer to Beamon," he says, "people are starting to talk of a 30-foot record. I haven't reached my peak yet, mentally or physically. It's hard to put a ceiling on how far I might jump."

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