- Jesse Owens
U.S. Olympic Athlete,
Track & Field
Any dreams I ever sported of an Olympics gold medal were dashed early in life; probably as soon as birth when a team of delivery room nurses scored my arrival no better than 5.77.
Admittedly, I was no 10. But sub-6? Perhaps my head was too big for their taste in upper appendages, but without benefit of a mirror and looking through badly squinting eyes I could hardly verify the cause of their disappointment. These were the bare-bottomed facts, perhaps as painful as the doctor’s gloved hand against my bare bottom.
Too young to understand the scoring system, I have since learned the nurses’ subjective judgment of my arrival most likely was based upon weighted factors like appearance, approach, artistic style, expression and natural athleticism. I failed in all categories. Yet, Mom still loved me, telling family and friends far and wide I was a 9 1/2-pound bundle of joy ... and a blessing.
But that hurtful day left a dark and sordid influence on my future as a world-class athlete. My dismal delivery room performance has stayed with me.
Subsequently, the United States Olympics Committee has never recruited my talents nor have their international counterparts. Although born in the Deep South in Ripley, Miss., which was the jurisdictional seat of Tippah County, I wasn’t even contacted by the Mississippi Olympics Committee. Maybe the letter of invitation just got lost in the mail. It was a common occurrence back then in the ‘50s and ‘60s for families living on a rural route. Our kudzu-lined gravel road was about as rural as the Magnolia State could offer.
Yet it never dampened my spirit nor fazed my dreams. My heart was set on Olympics stardom.
By the late ‘60s, we lived in West Tennessee. I was a young man, filled with unending spunk, athletic vim and lots of manly vigor. And my Olympian fire was blazing. Opportunity knocked the day I stumbled across a display ad in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. It promoted an “Olympian For A Day” event in which promising young athletes were being given a chance to try out for the U.S. Olympic Trials. It always had been my hope to try out for a trial.
So I called. They said come on over.
In the family’s second car, a faded yellow Ford Falcon stationwagon, I made the 20-minute drive to Memphis and arrived on site with a couple of hundred other aspiring Olympians. Realization of the err of my ways wasn’t long in coming. Maybe I was just misinformed. Perhaps I didn’t understand the expectations.
At the track and field tryout station, I lined up for the 100-yard dash. Back then, we ran yards, not meters. Of the 22 sprinters, I finished 21st ... only because one guy tripped and fell to the grassy surface. I left him inhaling a cloud of dust. He was nursing a scraped knee when I glanced over my shoulder to assure he wasn’t gaining ground.
Yet, 21st wasn’t good enough. The Olympics scout sent me to the hurdling station. I had never hurdled. Upon learning the goal was to jump over these wooden gates while in full stride, I winced. One ill-timed jump could mean ... well, it could mean an unflattering world of hurt.
“Got anything shorter?” I asked.
“These ARE the low hurdles,” the scout said. “We’ll get to the high ones later ... if you make it over these.”
“What else you got?” I offered.
He sent me to the fencing station.
“Hey, that sounds like a plan!” I said excitedly. “I’ve got a tool belt and hammer in the car. I’ll get them.”
He frowned. Another misunderstanding. So I headed for the volleyball station and promptly entered a match. Two immediate observations included the absurd height of that net and the excruciating pain when a fellow on the other team spiked a ball right smack into my face. It reminded me of dodge ball in junior high P.E. class.
Rubbing my nose and opting off the volleyball court, I headed for the basketball goal. These guys were tall. Way too tall. The Olympics scout scowled at my approach. I was still rubbing my nose.
“Can I help you, little fella?” he asked, scanning the short 5’8” distance from my feet to head.
“I’m a tryout,” I replied.
Smirking, he pointed to another station — the pole vaulting group.
“I’m supposed to do what with this pole?” I demanded as the scout pointed upward to the lowest cloud. Gently returning the pole to the ground, I stepped over to archery. Two scouts already lay on the ground bleeding. A third asked, “You got any experience with bow and arrow?”
“I once saw a Robin Hood movie,” I answered.
He pointed to a long swimming pool. Guys were splashing around from one end to the other in between lines of rope.
“What’s your best stroke?” the scout sought. “Freestyle? Back? Breast? Fly?”
“Stroke?” I quizzed. “First thing’s first. How deep’s that water?”
He sent me to another pool filled with a bunch of skinny boats and muscle-bound guys. The rowing scout asked, “What’s your specialty, son? Eight-man? Four-man? Or pairs?”
“How deep’s that water?” I asked.
Returning to track and field, I quizzed the coach, “You got anything that doesn’t require speed, jumping, agility, strength or drowning?” He pointed to the water table.
“Those jugs are pretty heavy,” he said. “But we need a water boy today. And you’ll get a souvenir Olympics lapel pin. Interested?”
Pondering my options, I declared, “I’ll take it!”
Olympics dreams make the man and just as often the woman. I admire them all. It’s not about the medals they’ve earned, but the sacrifices it took and the dedication required to earn them.
Nice job, Gabby.
That’s the spirit, U.S.A.
Way’ta go, world!