With his incisive reporting and rich storytelling, Schaap reveals what really happened over those tense, exhilarating weeks in a nuanced and riveting work of sports history.
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About the Author
Jeremy Schaap is the author of the New York Times bestseller Cinderella Man. An ESPN anchor and national correspondent, his work has been published in Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, Time, Parade, TV Guide, and the New York Times. He has also appeared on ABC's World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News. He is the son of the award-winning journalist Dick Schaap.
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A Day to Remember
ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN: MAY 25, 1935
LARRY SNYDER, Ohio State's thirty-eight-year-old track-and-field coach, was worried, running his fingers through his thick blond hair, nervously picking at his face, wondering what could be done to salvage the day, worried more about the health of the best athlete on his team, the best he had ever seen. Jesse Owens was supposed to be warming up for the 100-yard final of the Big Ten championship meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Instead, he was moaning in pain.
"Jesse," Snyder said, "look, it's not worth it. If you can't go, you can't go."
"I'll be okay," Owens responded. He tried to smile, to assure Snyder that everything would be fine. But the throbbing in his lower back made it impossible to smile. "It's feeling loose. It's okay," he lied.
Snyder shook his head. He knew Owens well enough to know that he was lying. By this time, in fact, Snyder and Owens were usually able to communicate without speech. In the sixteen months they had known each other, they had become more than tutor and pupil. They had become friends and allies. Theirs was a relationship, too, that seemed less father-and-son and more older brother-and-younger brother.
"No, Jesse, it's not okay," Snyder said. "You don't have to do this."
"Coach, I'm okay. Let me try."
"Fine," Snyder said. "Well, you better get out there."
Unable to lift his shirt over his head, Owens said, "Dave, help me put this on."
David Albritton, Ohio State's gifted high jumper and one of Owens's closest friends — a high school teammate in Cleveland — walked over, pulled Owens's shirt down over his head, and shook his head. The night before he had helped Owens climb into a hot bath, where he had soaked for ninety minutes. After a week of baths and rubdowns, Albritton had urged him to rest — not to risk further injury. But Owens insisted that he would compete.
A twenty-one-year-old sophomore, already a father, Owens hobbled onto the track at Ferry Field at the University of Michigan. As usual, an enormous crowd had gathered to see him run and jump. In the mid- 1930s, track and field was still a sport of the masses — the top runners and jumpers and throwers were on the same plane as the biggest stars from baseball, football, and boxing. In fact, in 1950, when the Associated Press polled 393 sports writers to determine the greatest athletes of the first half of the twentieth century, track stars led the way. Six finished among the top eighteen — more than from any other sport. On this day, more than 5000 fans were waiting to watch the phenomenon that was Jesse Owens, expecting or at least hoping to see him break some of the world records he had already tied or that already belonged solely to him. For five days it had been raining. But now, on the campus, it was sunny and warm, ideal sprinting weather. A perfect day, too, to come out to see the athlete who was already being called America's great hope for the Olympics the following year in Berlin.
But for Owens, each step was a test, to see if his back could hold his weight. So stupid, he thought, so stupid. Five days earlier, five days before the biggest meet of the season, he had fallen down a flight of stairs while horsing around with his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers in Columbus. The injury was all the more upsetting to Owens because it had seemed that he was getting stronger every week. He was coming off a remarkable meet at Northwestern, where he had set a world record in the 220-yard dash and tied the world record in the 100-yard dash. Still, in the back of his mind, he remembered what his first coach, Charles Riley, had always told him about injuries — that they can establish focus, if they are not entirely debilitating.
Usually Owens warmed up by jogging a quarter mile and stretching. But now he couldn't do either, even though Mel Walker, another Ohio State high jumper, had spent an hour rubbing him down the night before, after the bath. Snyder finally had had enough. He walked over to Owens and put his hands on his shoulders. "Jesse," he said, his eyes searching for some way to gauge Owens's discomfort, "I'm pulling you out of the meet. You can't run."
Without meeting Snyder's gaze, Owens started to protest. "Coach, I wouldn't lie to you. I'll be okay."
"I know," Snyder said, "it's a big meet, a big day. I know. But it's not worth risking all the other days. You can't run."
"Coach, can't we just wait and see how the first race goes?" Now Owens was begging.
Snyder removed his hands from Owens's shoulders. He shook his head. "Fine, you win," he said. He agreed to allow Owens to run the first race.
The day before, Owens had qualified for the final of the 100-yard sprint despite the searing pain in his back. Now all he wanted was a chance to compete in the final. If he couldn't withstand the pain, he wouldn't participate in the three other events he had entered: the 220- yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles, and the broad jump.
Stiff and angry at himself, he walked to the starting line. Even in his compromised state, he stood out from his competition. The numbers were average: five foot ten, 160 pounds. But the physique was extraordinary. The sportswriters of the time, white and black, often likened him to a big cat or, alternately, to a thoroughbred. His legs were perfectly tapered, his chest barreled and lean, his features sharp. Men as well as women routinely used one word to describe him: beautiful. He was called the Buckeye Bullet for alliterative and aesthetic reasons. And when in motion, he was a sight to see.
As he was limbering up, Owens spotted Riley, the short, frail-looking Irishman who had introduced him to running and jumping in junior high school. Riley had driven all the way from Cleveland, nearly 200 miles, in his ancient Model T to see him compete. If there was one person Owens hated to disappoint, it was Riley — the man he had always considered a second father, the first white man he had met who seemed to be colorblind. When food had been scarce at the Owenses' dinner table, there had always been room for Jesse at Charles Riley's. When Jesse's parents could not afford to buy him running shoes, Riley had dug deep into his meager savings to do so.
Suddenly, as adrenaline started to surge through Owens's veins, the pain subsided. At 3:15 p.m., the cinders crunching under his spikes, he got down on one knee, took the garden trowel that was lying on the dirt, and started digging a hole into which to plant his right foot. Runners still performed this task in 1935, because starting blocks were rarely used.
Now Owens could see both Riley and Snyder. Both wore unfamiliar faces of anxiety, and remarkably, it took Owens a moment to remember why they were anxious. Oh, yes, the pain. But for him, it had disappeared. At the moment he was about to run, he had always been able to shut out all distractions. His ability to focus — for all sprinters an invaluable asset, because their margin for error is so slim — was one of his great strengths. Settling into his starting position, Owens felt not soreness but the almost indescribable elation he always felt when he was about to run at full speed. At a certain level, he knew that when he ran at full speed, he was capable of running faster than any human had ever run. But the joy came from a deeper place. The knowledge of his own capacity for greatness made him thankful, humble, and proud.
Getting up from the dirt, stretching his arms, then his hamstrings, then, again, his lower back, Owens thought to himself, Pain? What pain?
One hundred yards away, six timers were standing by the finish line, stopwatches at the ready. Like the runners, they were waiting nervously for the gun. When it was fired, Owens was off, but as usual, not very quickly. The greatest sprinter the world had ever known was never a fast starter. But he could afford to wait. "About everybody beat him off the start," said Bob Collier of Indiana University, who was also in that race. "But after thirty yards, it was no contest."
As was his custom, 30 yards from the starting line, Owens exploded, like a powerful engine that has finally warmed up. His short, effortless strides attained a spectacular rhythm, his body accelerating without any apparent effort. His famous, textbook form held steady — his posture never altered, no motion was wasted, his upper body was perfectly straight. If his back was still hurting him, no one could tell. Ten yards from the tape, he was still accelerating, a blur. As he broke the tape — his eyes straight ahead, because he was confident that no one was anywhere near him — the stopwatches clicked and a wave of applause rose from the crowd.
Three timers had clocked Owens at 9.4 seconds, the other three at 9.3. Unfortunately, the three official timers — three were alternates — clocked him at 9.3, 9.3, and 9.4, and as was customary, the slowest time would be the official time. Big Ten timers, including the head timer, Professor Phillip Diamond of the University of Michigan, were known for their slow thumbs and stodgy rules. Unlike most timers, Big Ten timers held that a runner crossed the finish line only with his so-called center of gravity, not with his nose, arm, or knee. In a further attempt to prevent his timers from being too generous, Diamond advised them to click their stopwatches only when they saw a runner's back foot cross the finish line. His fussiness probably cost Owens a world record; as it was, his 9.4 tied the world record he already shared with the two-time Olympic gold medalist Frank Wykoff.
In the stands, Riley was still on his feet, still cheering. On the track, Snyder, always emotional, was jumping up and down, pumping his fist. He had been worried that Owens might throw out his back; now he ran to the spot where the sprinter was catching his breath to offer his congratulations. "Jesse," he said, "that was phenomenal. I don't know how you did it."
"I could have gone faster," Owens replied flatly. Then, stretching out his back, he turned to answer a reporter. "I'm not bragging," he said, "but I really did get a bad start. Frankly, I am a little bit disappointed."
But there was no time for him to linger in his disappointment. Fifteen minutes after the 100-yard dash, he was preparing to launch his body into the broad-jump pit. In the previous day's Los Angeles Times, Snyder had predicted that Owens would soon break the world record, then held by Chuhei Nambu of Japan, of 26 feet, 2 inches. Over the course of more than two thousand years — the ancient Greeks were broad-jump enthusiasts — the record had moved barely 2 feet. In the Times, Snyder told Francis J. Powers that Owens "can do a full 27 feet if he will concentrate on his takeoff." For his part, Powers ventured a guess: "It may be that Owens will find the board in the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, and, if so, Nambu and others who have planted their spikes on the records will be dismissed from the books."
Now, as he readied himself to jump, Owens, in a rare display of showmanship — Riley had trained him to accept victory and defeat (however rare that might be) with the same good grace — gently placed a white handkerchief 26 feet, 2 inches from the takeoff board. He wanted a target — Nambu's mark — even if it was barely discernible from the takeoff board. Like Snyder, Owens knew that the broad-jump record would eventually be his. In training sessions he routinely jumped farther than Nambu had jumped; it was just a question of when he would get all the details right in a competition. For Owens, like most sprinters who moonlight as long jumpers, jumping was much more punishing than running. For this reason, and because he was so much better than almost anyone he competed against, he rarely jumped more than once or twice in any given meet. Those jumps, though, were usually awe-inspiring.
As Owens was preparing to hurl himself down the track and toward the pit, Snyder came up to him and told him, needlessly, to concentrate on his form, to generate as much velocity as possible before he hit the board — and, most important, to measure his steps carefully so that he would neither foul nor leap too far back on the board. Form didn't matter much to Owens, because he always had it.
At 3:35, as Riley and Snyder — and everyone else at Ferry Field — trained their eyes on him, Owens started running toward the takeoff board, 108 feet away. As the distance dwindled, his speed rapidly increased. He was moving fluidly, his arms pumping, his gait natural. He hit the board in full stride — there was no stutter-stepping to prevent fouling. Then he was in the air — for less than a second, but his body got so high so fast that it seemed he might sail entirely clear of the pit. The crowd knew somehow that they were witnessing that rarest of feats, unequaled athleticism matched with flawless execution, and gasped. Michigan State's athletic director, Ralph Young, was standing beside the pit, which was lined with dozens of spectators. Young later told Larry Snyder that Owens jumped over his head "by about a foot," and a famous photograph seemed to prove his assertion. Finally Owens's feet crashed into the sand. He knew too. He had flown directly over the handkerchief.
Still, it took a few moments to measure off the distance. Then the track announcer, Ted Canty, turned on his megaphone. "We have a new world's record," he said, stating the obvious. "Twenty-six feet, eight and one-quarter inches!" Nursing a sore back, Owens had broken the world record by more than half a foot.
Albritton and Walker rushed over to congratulate him. Riley pumped his tiny, clenched fist. Snyder smiled, as if to say, "I knew it. It was only a matter of time."
This time Owens was tempted to jump again, just to see if he could reach the 27-foot mark. But there was no time. He was due at the starting line for the 220-yard dash. The world record, set by Roland "Gipper" Locke of the University of Nebraska in 1924 and tied by Ralph Metcalfe in 1933, was 20.6 seconds. Standing on the field not far from the track, seventeen-year-old Tom Harmon had gotten caught up in the excitement. Harmon was in Ann Arbor on a recruiting trip — the Michigan football team wanted him badly — and he would go on to win the 1940 Heisman Trophy for the Wolverines. But on this day he was simply an awed teenager. Owens, Harmon thought, was "absolutely beautiful."
At 3:45 — just ten minutes after hurtling nearly 27 feet through the air — Owens, who had now completely forgotten how sore his back had been, threw himself down the track once more. This time his start was clean, and for all but the first few yards of the race he was utterly alone. Even without anyone to push his pace, he picked up speed with each stride, until it seemed that his feet were barely skimming the track. Then the stopwatches clicked again. Another world record — 20.3 seconds. No one had ever before set two world records on the same day. In the stands, Charles Riley's was only one among thousands of voices going hoarse in Owens-induced ecstasy.
Snyder, too, was truly pleased. In two years at Ohio State, Owens had been spectacular, but barely more spectacular than he had been in high school. Snyder's fellow coaches had not given him any credit for the records Owens had set; on the contrary, they thought — most of them, anyway — that he had either stalled Owens's progress or that Owens had nothing more to give. "Every coach in the Big Ten was watching me with a critical eye," Snyder said, "to see how I would handle him." Now no one could deny Snyder's role in the development of Jesse Owens. Owens had come to Snyder gifted but raw; now he was gifted and invincible. The victories belonged to Owens, but finally there would be acclaim for Snyder too. More than ever, their reputations were linked.
The Jesse Owens whom Snyder was now watching was unlike any track-and-field athlete he or anyone else had ever seen. Owens was graceful and swift and unflappable. Soon sportswriters around the United States would take to calling him, among other things, "the Ebony Antelope." The predominant track star of the previous decade, Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, a middle- and long-distance runner, wasn't beautiful to watch. You can admire the stamina of a great distance runner, but you can't really enjoy watching someone run 10,000 meters, 25 laps around a track. Owens, in contrast, brought joy to the huge crowds that gathered when he competed. His races became events.
In the 1930s, track and field didn't attract quite as many fans as baseball and boxing and horseracing, but it was far from a niche sport. The results of the big meets were printed in daily newspapers of every size. The big national columnists — Grantland Rice and Paul Gallico and others — dedicated hundreds of column inches every year to runners, jumpers, and weight throwers. Jim Thorpe, the 1912 Olympic decathlon champion, was widely considered the greatest athlete who'd ever lived. (These days, no one thinks that the Olympic decathlon and pentathlon champion is the world's greatest athlete. He's considered little more than an acutely focused specialist, someone who's spent years mastering the intricacies of the javelin and pole vault but probably couldn't play tight end in the National Football League.) Tens of thousands of people regularly filled stadiums from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to watch college track meets. Young men with running ability weren't necessarily snatched up by football coaches to play running back and wide receiver; most of them went out for the track team first and then maybe the football team, if their track coaches allowed it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Triumph"
Copyright © 2007 Jeremy Schaap.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART I 1. A Day to Remember 3 2. Out of Alabama 14 3. Vincible 31 4. Heel Bones and a New Start 55
PART II 5. The Judge and the Millionaire 63 6. “We Are with You, Adolf” 83 7. A Blessing in Disguise 98 8. Jew Kills Nazi 105 9. A Friend and a Foe Felled 112 10. Olympic Trials 122
PART III 11. Olympia 137 12. The Belle of the Ball 142 13. The Battle Tent of Some Great Emperor 150 14. The Youth of the World 159 15. Day One 172 16. Day Two 183 17. Day Three 196 18. “He Flies Like the Hindenburg”: Day Four 213 19. The Relay 219
Epilogue 230 Notes 237 Acknowledgments 257 Index 261
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