Long before he became the fastest man in the world, Carl Lewis was a self-described “small, skinny kid” looking for the best place to nurture his growing talent.
After breaking the national high school long jump record as a student in Willingsboro, N.J., Lewis was recruited by hundreds of colleges. But after multiple interviews, he finally found what he was looking for at the University of Houston, with Tom Tellez, the men’s track coach.
“Houston was the only school that told me what they could do to advance me, which is what the college experience should be,” Lewis said. “Everyone else was saying, ‘Look at what you could do for our college.’”
Tellez and UH lived up to its promise, helping train Lewis to achieve remarkable feats – 10 Olympic medals, including nine gold medals, and a world record for speed.
“When I came here my freshman year, I was a very shy, little, skinny kid. People don’t remember that,” he said. “I’m none of those things now, and a lot of that is because of my experience here [at UH].”
Lewis arrived on campus in fall 1979, and spent his first year in the Moody Towers – a dorm experience he recommends for all undergraduates.
“I loved the experience. I loved being on campus,” Lewis said of living in the dorm. “I enjoyed very much not just the atmosphere of being in school, but also the camaraderie of my teammates.”
He enjoyed wandering around the campus – then much smaller than it is today – and taking other classes that helped to shape him into the man he would become.
One such class was a speech class, which Lewis credits with teaching him how to present himself to the public.
“What happened is that I realized that I couldn’t be what I wanted to be without being able to articulate my ideas, so I took speech classes here,” he said. “I said, ‘How can I become a better public speaker? How can I extend my vision?’ I learned that at the University of Houston. That wasn’t a natural thing.”
While learning new skills, Lewis also took the opportunity at UH to advance his natural abilities. He spent his days training with Tellez and the track team. Very quickly, that training began to pay off.
Lewis credits his longtime coach with teaching him how to compete in multiple events without injuring himself.
“I came in here with bad knees,” he says. “Coach Tellez changed my technique and I was injury-free.”
Lewis’ ability to compete successfully in both track and field events – a rarity among track athletes at that time – soon became readily apparent. By 1980, Lewis had qualified for the Olympics in long jump and as a member of the 4×100 meter relay team. The American boycott of those Olympics meant Lewis didn’t compete that year. But he spent the intervening years until the next Olympics training with Tellez and becoming a formidable challenger in another event – sprinting.
He won six National Collegiate Athletic Association titles for the University of Houston, and by 1984, he was considered a heavy favorite at that year’s Olympics in Los Angeles. He exceeded expectations when he won his first four gold medals there – in the 100 meter, the 200 meter, the long jump, and the 4×100 meter relay.
At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Lewis added two more gold medals and one silver medal to his resume. He earned his seventh and eighth gold medals in 1992 in Barcelona, and his final gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta at the age of 35.
In 1999, as a testament to his lengthy career and multiple achievements, Lewis was named “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee, and “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated magazine.
Since retiring from the sport, Lewis has gone on to act in movies, serve as a mentor to students, and launch his own sports social networking Web site – www.fitforever.com. He also likes to promote the University of Houston, particularly the educational opportunities it offers, during his travels around the world.
“What people do not know, especially in the places I have been, is the educational side of the University of Houston, and the contributions … why it was founded, and what it is all about,” Lewis said. “I felt that it was time to start talking about that as well.”
He gives back to the university in countless ways, with donations of both money and time. In 2000, the university’s new track and field facility was named for Lewis in recognition of his accomplishments and all of his contributions.
“The reality is I became a man and a person in Houston,” Lewis said. “Houston will always be a very important part of me, no matter where I am.”
And he will always consider himself a proud Cougar.
“If I didn’t come here, you wouldn’t know me,” he said. “I feel that strongly.”