These kids competing at the Texas Relays weren’t around when Carl Lewis was stacking up gold medals. But the stories and videos have helped keep his legend alive in the decades since the track and field icon retired.
Aside from the specks of gray hair on his head, Lewis, 55, still cuts the same figure from back when he owned the sport.
“Hey, I know you,” a young Dallas Carter athlete said to him as he walked by on Friday. “You’re famous.”
I spoke with Lewis at the Relays while he visited with Bremond sprinter Joe Williams, who has signed to run at Houston next spring.
“Grades, grades, grades,” he whispered to Williams, who was preparing for a race.
“Yes, sir,” Williams said. “I got it.”
Lewis is a Texas Relays legend. He grew up in New Jersey but fell in love with the Relays after winning a relay gold medal at Houston as a freshman.
“It was all about the Penn Relays where I grew up,” he said. “We didn’t have the Internet back then, so there wasn’t much else outside of our area. Once I moved down here, I switched my allegiance to the Texas Relays.”
Lewis helped out his his alma mater for many years, but is in his third year as a full-time assistant under his Olympic teammate Leroy Burrell. Decades after he electrified crowds when the Relays were held over at DKR, Lewis spends his days coaching sprinters and jumpers while also working with his Team Perfect Method group.
Lewis isn’t taking money for his services. He’s in it for a higher purpose. Simply put, he wants to do his part to get American sprinters back onto the medal stand.
Speaking of gold medals, it’s been a minute since Lewis anchored the USA’s record-setting 400 relay effort at the Barcelona Olympics, which remains arguably the most delicious 37.4 seconds of video in YouTube history.
It will be 25 years ago this summer.
“I don’t even want to talk about it,” Lewis said with a chuckle outside the long jump pit. “It’s so psycho that it’s been that long.”
His iconic anchor leg is for my money the top moment of his career, the ninth of his 10 Olympic golds and, thanks to the Internet, the most viewed. Seems like yesterday that Burrell blazed down that back stretch and handed it off to Dennis Mitchell, who ran the scariest third leg in our nation’s history before Lewis brought a packed house at Estadi Olímpic to its feet with the final 100 meters of his Olympic career.
“When I got the baton from Dennis, I knew I had it,” Lewis said. “I said, ‘Yes! Yes! Then my focus turned to, ‘Now let’s put this thing away.’”
Does he remember his split?
It was an 8.85, a world record at the time.
Many years later, members of that team are still asked about the events of that Olympics — it was the same year that the famed Dream Team dominated in men’s basketball — but there are larger issues that have come from that experience.
“More people talk to us about why we can’t get it done lately,” Burrell said. “They wonder why we can’t get the baton around. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were competing in the golden age.”
Twenty years after his last Olympic race, Lewis remembers sitting in the stadium at the 2012 London Olympics as U.S. male sprinters came up short time and time again. Jamaica ascended to the top of the sprinting food chain, led by Usain Bolt.
Lewis left Europe with one thought in mind: Get America back to the top.
“I’m coaching now because I went to that Olympics and the American men didn’t win a single sprint race,” he said. “So I was so disappointed that I thought we had to do something about it.”
Under his and Burrell’s watch, the Cougars took seven out of eight places at the 2016 AAC conference meet. Houston already has a 400 relay silver medal finish in its pocket from last season’s NCAA outdoor championships.
More than 30 years after Lewis recruited Burrell to Houston as the two watched Villanova’s upset win over Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA Final Four, the long-time teammates are hoping to build a stable of sprinters in one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country. Lewis said Burrell has allowed him to “over-accept” sprinters to Houston in an effort to build the program to one of the nation’s elite. Most are from the Houston area.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a school to go get foreigners,” Lewis said, “but our mission is to get Americans because we want American Olympians. I don’t want to just win the conference or the nationals. I want America to win the world.”
Like he and Leroy did back in the day.