07/15/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
Bob Beamon was orphaned before his first birthday and running with a rough Queens, N.Y., street gang by the time he entered his teens. "Most of my friends from the early years are no longer with us," he attests. What saved Beamon—who couldn't read or write and was sent to a high school for troubled teens—was the encouragement of his grandmother and the high school coaches who recognized his long-jump ability. "They didn't give up on me," he says. Years of training led to one perfect moment at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where Beamon soared precisely 29'2½", an Olympic record that still stands. On the medal podium that year, his black teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos jolted the world with their raised-fist salutes. Beamon made a quieter—but equally heartfelt—statement, rolling up his tracksuit pants to reveal black socks as he accepted the gold. "We were all involved in the movement," he reflects. "We wanted better jobs and education, as well as more opportunities."
Now 49, Beamon achieved those goals—he earned a degree from Adelphi University—and has spent his life helping inner-city children. For 15 years he has lived in Miami and worked for Metro-Dade County's Parks and Recreation Department, organizing track meets as well as art and dance lessons to try to persuade kids to look beyond sports: "You've got to make young people understand that role models are not only athletes but people around them, aunts, uncles, ministers." He has two daughters, Tameka, 22, and Deanna, 11, and last year married for a third time, to Milana Walter, a 40ish special-events producer In Atlanta, Beamon will be in the stands, watching the assault on his Olympic mark. "If it happens, it will happen," he says, but no one will ever take from him that "I had accomplished something for myself, my family and the country."