Few track and field athletes will ever amass the same level of lore and legend that surrounds Jesse Owens. Gifted from birth, Owens story remains one of triumph and perseverance for all people of color living in the United States. His athletic achievements, vast and seemingly unfeasible today, have enshrined Owen’s name in sport’s history. However, behind his multitude of world records and Olympic titles remains an individual who embodied hope and humility, and who continues to stand today as an example of benevolence for both his community and the country.
Born in rural Alabama to a sharecropper family in 1913, Jesse was the youngest of seven children. With desperation and racial tensions forcing the Owens family out of the south, Jesse along with his six siblings and parents relocated to Cleveland, Ohio in 1922. It was in Cleveland that Jesse’s unquestionable potential began to show. During his junior high school years, Jesse broke national records in every way imaginable, clearing over 6 feet in the high jump, while also long jumping over 22 feet. By the time he reached high school, Jesse was already a world premier athlete. By his senior year, Owens had tied the 100 yard dash world record in 9.4 seconds, while also setting a new world record in the long jump at 24 feet and 11 ¾ inches, along with a bevy of state titles. Though still subject to the discrimination and mistreatment of all African-Americans during the early 20th century, Owen’s astounding talent could not be ignored by major college coaches, and in 1934, he committed to compete for Ohio State University.
Owen’s college career would shock the world. Only a freshman during the 1935 season, Jesse entered the Big 10 Conference Championships as the favorite in every event he competed. However, not even his coaches could have predicted the legendary performance that would ensue. With an injured back, Owens set three new world records and tied a fourth in his respective sprinting and jumping events in a span of forty-five minutes at the conference meet. This unbridled display of raw talent and ability began to spread Owen’s reputation, and the following year, Jesse was the clear hope for the United States’ gold medal aspirations in the summer Olympics that were to be held in Berlin.
With internal pressure mounting for the United State’s Olympic squad, the world held its breath as Hitler and his Nazi regime prepared Berlin for the world’s most elite sporting stage. Jesse and his U.S. teammates entered Europe with rumors swirling around the newly instituted government and its practices. In the midst of the political firestorm, however, Jesse Owens defiantly performed at his peak for the entire world to see. With the fuhrer observing from his box, Jesse garnered four Olympic medals while simultaneously setting three new world records. In a public performance, the young African American man from Alabama defiantly tore down the’ Nazi regime’s hopes of Aryan race superiority. With unquestionable athletic performance and a modest, kind-hearted attitude, Owen’s captured the hearts of the world that summer.
Even after that fateful summer in 1936, Owen’s true legacy and impact continued to build. As an amateur athlete, he did not return home to a plethora of endorsements and contracts, rather he returned to the U.S. as a philanthropist, father, and husband. Supporting his family with a multitude of jobs such as Playground Director, Jesse sought to support his local community in any way he could. Owens eventually moved to Chicago and devoted much of his time working with underprivileged youth. In what would be his true joy, Owens became a board member and eventual director for the Chicago Boy’s Club.
During a dark time in American history with racial inequalities and tensions ripping at the fabric of the nation, Jesse Owens stood as a hero who encapsulated hope. Today’s world looks back on Owen’s life and achievements with admiration and an evident thankfulness for his excellence in the face of unquestionable adversity. Undoubtedly, Jesse Owens is an athlete and man who has transcended the boundaries and limitations of hate and prejudice. His perseverance, both on the track and in his community, has paved the way for the generations of dreamers that have followed and will continue to follow in his footsteps towards a better future.
Celebrate the history of Jesse Owens with this framed Olympic print of Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics.
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