Mike Powell, 8.95 is forever
Together with Karhu, we met the greatest long jumper in history
There are sporting moments that reflect on the course of history, that redefine the paradigms of physics, that rework human limits, making reality imagination and imagination reality. They are rapid rips in time, instantaneous and unpredictable transitions to new athletic eras, to unexplored worlds.
“Competing against Carl Lewis was not easy, you know?” jokes Mike Powell as he spreads his arms wide and gives an ironic smile to the Ratina Stadium media center in Tampere, “He was a living legend. My only focus was to beat him. And in order to beat him, I knew I’d have to do only one thing: break the world record.”
August 30, 1991, World Athletics Championships in Tokyo, long jump final. The man called ‘Son of the Wind’ gets carried away by an upward and, at the same time, horizontal current. The windy assist is almost 3 meters per second. His body escapes from the sand shortly thereafter, leaving his sign at 8 meters and 91 centimeters. Bob Beamon in the groundbreaking Mexico City ’68 event had stopped an inch earlier, pulverizing Soviet Igor’ Ter-Ovanesjan’s world record and redefining the entire discipline.
“Three days before that final I had my last training session and was asked to sign an autograph. I wrote my name, Mike Powell, followed by ‘1991 World Champion, 8.95.’ At that time my personal best was 8.66 and I didn’t know anything about centimeters, I was always thinking in inches… That number was in my head, though. It had to happen.”
Mike Powell’s body takes over the platform of the National Olympic Stadium. Around the long streak of tartan only an absolute Japanese silence. The 27-year-old from Philadelphia puffs at a regular cadence, seems to fix his gaze on an external dimension, unknown to us, draws the typical three-to-four stage steps introductory to his run-up, then launches himself into an obsessive and elegant rotary motion of legs and arms. Powell cleaves the earth, then the air. Everything stops, including time and wind.
“Athletics is rhythm. The long jump is a dance: you load up, fly, and… Splash. Visualization is key in the seconds before the run-up. I didn’t see myself as a robot, but as an animal, I felt the energy taking over my body, I thought of a cheetah and its speed, its lines: I wanted to move in the same way.”
8.95. It’s an animal dance. It’s a world record destined to last for 30 years, and for who knows how many more. Powell celebrates by running wildly, ideally embracing the entire grandstand populated by streams of people who fail to react, amazed, almost appalled, by an inconceivable athletic gesture. Thanks to that nearly 9-meter glide, Powell has just tasted a revenge he’d been waiting for all his life, has written with his own body something that cannot and will not be erased, has simply declared that he’s the greatest long jumper in sports history.
“That victory was not just about the World Cup. It was about my whole life, about everyone who had not believed in me: the insiders who thought I was too skinny, the girls who had refused to date me… That jump was everything. I was telling the world ‘I’m Here!’ I was and continue to be happy and proud about that achievement. I was able to make sports history, and I’ve always, first and foremost, been an absolute fan of this sport. I am an ‘athletics geek’ and seeing all these people still stopping me to ask for a photo, or even just to congratulate me, makes me emotional.”
Walking alongside Mike Powell would be complex in a normal urban setting; it becomes impossible in a Finnish city populated by track & field enthusiasts. In the World Masters Athletics village of Tampere, where Powell serves as an ambassador, every step for this living legend means a selfie, every greeting means a strong excitement provoked. Today Mike Powell is 58 years old. Three decades have passed since his aerial masterpiece, yet everyone continues to be drawn to the aura of a special man, in the truest sense of the word.
“It’s natural for me to be around people. For some athletes it’s not easy, I understand that, but for me it’s rewarding. Most of all I love being in contact with the athletes I coach. My main goal is to give them confidence and enjoyment. An athlete’s confidence reflects on a person’s confidence, and confidence is a key tool for young kids who are trying to define themselves as human beings, struggling to find their place in sport and society. When I see Masters athletes, then, I know I am in the right place: they’re as crazy as I am. I always say that only those who don’t move are old: I train, I coach young people, I dance, I feel young in the mind. Age is just a number.”
While sipping a glass of Lonkero, a drink invented for the Helsinki ’52 Olympics, together with Emanuele Arese, Chief Operating Officer of Karhu – official sponsor of the Tampere WMA – Mike Powell exudes a feeling of controlled grandeur, of genuine humility. He informs us that he didn’t come to Finland just to shake hands and do PR, but to play music, to DJ in the evening party open to all WMA members.
“I told you, music and athletics are connected. For me, the long jump is hip hop. I grew up with the flow of the Sugar Hill Gang and still dance with my daughter today. So many of my friends listen to jazz, but I need different beats, especially when I’m on the track. I love making music, always have, which is why I started and am continuing to DJ. Music is positivity, and positivity is a secret in a sportsman’s career. As people we tend to be negative, but with the guys I coach I do the exact opposite: I keep telling them how wonderful and great they are. That’s basically what it’s all about, whether it’s a world record or any other goal: if you can see it, if you can feel it, if you can think it, then you can do it…”
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