Long jump world record holder Mike Powell is an eternal optimist. How else would he have competed and won against the unbeatable Carl Lewis when everyone else told him he couldn’t? After losing 15 consecutive times to Lewis, Mike unleashed the longest jump in history – 8.95m, crashing Bob Beamon‘s 23-year-old record (8.9m) at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. When I met Mike, the legendary American athlete spoke at length on his historic jump, missing the gold and the doping clouds on Indian Athletes.
Not many know that Basket ball was your original favourite sport. When did you start taking your jumps seriously?
When I was in high school my dream was to play, maybe not in the NBA but at the university level. And I was pretty good. But when it came to athletics, I was more natural athlete. The thing about athletics is that it’s not your ball skills. If you are fast then you are going to be fast. If you can jump, you are going to be the best jumper. So my athletism was stronger and I had better offers for scholarships for universities in athletics. So though my preference was to play basketball this is the way it all worked out.
During your initial years you became known as ‘Mike Foul’ for your tendency to plant your foot past the legal takeoff board during approach. You often produced only one or two legal jumps out of every six.
Oh yeah, it was frustrating through out my whole career. If it hadn’t been for the fouls I would have been a much better jumper. I have had many coaches who helped me throughout my career but the one who’s most responsible for my success is Randy Huntington. Randy taught me the art of sprinting. When I was competing against Carl Lewis the one thing I noticed with him is the consistency in his running. When you are doing the long jump you may start back some 40 meters and have to hit a board that is 20 cms long. So you have to be very accurate and you also factor in the wind. A lot of things can change within the 20 steps. Before I started to work with Randy, I used to just jump (laugh).
As a result, you underachieved at the trials for the Olympics in 1984 and didn’t make the U.S. team. How did that feel?
Oh I wasn’t good enough then. In 1984 I wasn’t prepared mentally. It was my first Olympic trials and I was just happy to be there. I was young, just 21. I looked at Carl and was like ‘wow this is Carl.’ I was just trying to contain myself.
What was on your mind before entering the 1991 World Championship? How did you prepare for it?
When I started working with Randy in 1987 he looked at me, saw my ability and said, okay we can break the world record in four years. I said, ‘I like this guy.’ I believed in myself but didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. With Randy I learnt science of the sport, the periodisation in the training, the importance of weightlifting, etc. My coach was way ahead of the curve. Each year we were working on a particular issue – improving speed, running technique, diet, shrink level, consistency and so on. So it was a well thought out process knowing that each year I would get better and better and better and then close the gap between myself and Carl Lewis.
Was Carl Lewis’s success on your mind? You said somewhere that you demonized Carl Lewis. Was that important?
You see I was always the under dog. I grew up as a skinny kid not very confident. But when people would challenge me, I would do my best. Carl Lewis was my idol. But when I started competing against him I thought I can’t look at him as my idol. So I made him my enemy to give me more motivation. I figured I need to use everything I could to beat such a great athlete.
How do you look at it now? Are you guys friends now?
We are friends now. I like Carl. I like him NOW. Carl wasn’t the bad guy but I knew I had to use everything I could to maybe beat him. Now everybody says ‘oh you broke the world record,’ but back then nobody could beat him. In many competitions he was lagging behind. But when it came to the last jump – it was over – he would win. And the thing that bothered us the most was that he didn’t even jump so much. He was doing 100 and 200 meters, whereas we were jumping all the time. And then he would come over there and beat us too. We hated it. He didn’t lose for 10 years.
He was very arrogant though. When he came to compete he would give us a look that said, “you know I am winning. Who is going for second and third?” And that’s why I had to demonise him. I had to let him know – you can lose, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year. But one day I am going to get you.
How did you feel when the world record was announced?
Oh gosh! It was amazing. My training was at the best. My coach and I knew that I was ready physically. One of my best attributes was my mental capacity to compete well. My thing was to connect with the crowd take their energy… I needed that so much. So prior to the last jump (when I broke the world record) I told myself – okay, this is the time, this is the jump, you can see it, now just go and do it. I knew before I started running that it would be a world record. I use a lot of visualizations. The night before the competition, the morning and at the competition I see myself doing positive jumps. I worked with a lot of sports psychologist on the positivity. The more positivity you put in your mind the more positive things you are going to get. So when the time came for the last jump I could see it. It was one of those moments of clarity, I wish I could capture.
You won 2 Olympic silver in 88 and 92. Do you miss the gold?
Everyday (laughs). When I was competing, I would achieve every goal that I set – going to the university at UCLA, making it to the Olympic team, going around the world, beating Carl Lewis and becoming the world champion. So I thought the gold would come easy but it didn’t come. May be it was a blessing. If I would have won the gold, maybe I wouldn’t be coaching now. Maybe I wouldn’t be as humble. Who knows?
What kept you going in spite of Carl being there? How did you keep motivating yourself?
I love competing. For me it was just fun. And it wasn’t a job. I would tell myself – it’s a game, you are jumping in sand. Sometimes I would pinch myself to believe that I was competing at that level. I always kept that attitude, I felt blessed to be doing that.
Tell us something about your growing up years. I believe you shocked your neighbours by jumping over their cars?
(Laughs). I used to jump over everything. Even to this day I look at something and think ‘can I jump over that?’ Most times I have to stop myself from jumping over things. So now when I go out with my friends they goad me to jump over things and even bet money.
The world of athletics has been rocked by drugs scandal. More recently 14 of our athletes have tested positive for banned drugs. Your thoughts.
It’s unfortunate. I think that most times when athletes do get involved in performance enhancing drugs it’s because their coaches have told them you need to do this as everyone else is doing it. Fortunately the coaches I have had always said you don’t have to do that. That’s the short cut. It may take longer, you may have to work harder but you don’t have to do that. Most often people who get caught are people who are supposed to get caught. My advise to athletes would be – Don’t do it. It’s not worth it.
Lastly who do you think can break your record?
It’s difficult now. When I broke the world record I had to do – to win. Because Carl was so great. I had to beat the world record just to be close to him and hope Carl wouldn’t break it right after. The level of championing is much lower now. The talent is there, but it’s not just the talent but the mental strength and I don’t find that in the athletes today. What’s disappointing to me is that not many come to me to ask. When I was competing I would go to anyone who was even slightly better than me and ask, ‘what shoes are you wearing, what do you eat, can I train with you.’ But the athletes today just pretend they have figured it out. So as much as it’s disappointing, my record still holds.
Cricket in India dominates all other sports, especially athletics which is considered the poor man’s sport. What in your opinion ails athletics in India?
In United States the biggest sport is football. Then comes basketball, baseball and football again! Athletic is way down the rung. India is a country of billion people. Everybody doesn’t have to compete. Just get even one per cent of the population to be interested in the game. Get the best coaching and facilities available to the best of that lot. You need a place to train, a place to find out how good your athletes are. I am the world record holder but I know that there are many people walking around this planet who can jump further than me. I just happened to be the one who did it. I was working with Anju Bobby George. She was great. When I first started training with her I knew she could jump seven metres. She was confident but didn’t believe in her self so much. Not as much as I thought she should.
RAPID FIRE / BOX ITEM
I am a positive person. The glass is always half full. It’s never over until it’s over and when its over we will figure out how to come back next time.
Best thing about being an athlete
The travel, people and the friends that I made.
My positivity. Not letting the seriousness of the competition get to me.
Biggest challenge as a coach
To get people to believe in themselves. To make them believe that it can happen.
Passion apart from sports
Travelling, meeting people
If I had achieved everything then I guess I wouldn’t have learnt so much. I am glad that I learnt.
My ultimate goal
To get my masters in Sports Psychology
You can have all the talent in the world but if can’t focus and do it in the right time, it doesn’t matter.
There are no perfect days. That’s why we practice.
Best athlete ever
Interview: Nivedita Jayaram Pawar
Picture Courtesy: Shivangi Kulkarni