BY THE TIME HIS FIFTH JIMP CAME around, Mike Powell was talking to himself. He knew he had to hit a big one. The great Carl Lewis was having a career night. “At the top of the runway, I went over the jump in my mind,” says Powell. “I tried to be oblivious to the crowd. I told myself I wasn’t as fast as Carl, so I had to feel not just fast but springy. When I ran, I let out a yell. I’m not sure why. Then when I landed, I still had that aggression, so I let out another yell.”
Pretty soon everyone else at the World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo late last month was yelling too. For Mike Powell had taken off a virtual nobody and had landed squarely in the record books. He had leaped 29’4½”, thereby shattering the longest-standing and most venerated record in track and field—Bob Beamon’s 29’2½” jump in the thin and unresisting air of Mexico City at the 1968 Olympics. He had also beaten Carl Lewis, the superman of track, who had not lost a long jump since 1981.
“There was so much intensity,” says Powell, 27. “We were just fighting it out like little kids—that’s what it boils down to.” The analogy seems apt since Powell I races his competitive fires to the heat he took growing up in his L.A. neighborhood. “I think my motivation today still comes from the other kids calling me Skinny,” he says. “I had these real thin legs, and the other kids would say, ‘Hey, there’s Skinny. Look at Skinny.’ ”
Powell’s legs muscled up nicely at UC Irvine. But he wasn’t considered world-class material in the long jump until one day in his sophomore year, he got off a leap of 26’5½”. “At that point,” he says, “I started looking to make the Olympic team.”
In 1988 Powell brought the silver medal home from Seoul, Korea—with Lewis, of course, copping the gold. That was also the year he met his girlfriend, Karen Koellner, 24, a hurdler on the same Olympic team. The two are planning a week to themselves on a Caribbean cruise this fall. And then Powell—who got $50,000 from Foot Locker, his main corporate sponsor, for breaking the record—will make his way back to the jumping pits.
“Carl has been unbeaten all these years,” reflects Powell. “It’s tough to get to the top, but harder to maintain it. So now we’ll find out what kind of jumper I really am.”