On May 25, 1935, Jesse Owens put on the single-greatest performance in sports history.
There have been many legendary athletic feats over the course of the last century. Wilt Chamberlain erupted for 100 points against the New York Knicks in 1962, and the Redskins’ Sammy Baugh threw four touchdown passes and added an NFL-record four interceptions in one game in 1943. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings in 1959. But those pale in comparison to Jesse Owens’ accomplishments at the 1935 Big Ten Track and Field Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He didn’t just rewrite the record book – he tore it up.
In a span of 45 minutes, the Ohio State sophomore established a new standard for athletics excellence, setting four world records and equaling a fifth. At the University of Michigan’s Ferry Field Stadium, Owens tied the world record in the 100-yard dash and then set the world record in the long jump, the 220-yeard dash and the 220 low hurdles. The shy 21-year-old averaged a world record every nine minutes.
Owens’ one-day blockbuster in Ann Arbor is unparalleled — not only in track and field, but in any sport. While Mark Spitz’ seven-gold-medals-in-seven-races [all in world record time] at the 1972 Munich Olympics was epic, the Indiana swimmer did so over a span of eight days, and three of his medals came in relay events. Thirty-six years later, Michael Phelps claimed eight golds in eight days at the 2008 Beijing Games. Like Spitz, three of them came in relays.
The son of an Alabama sharecropper, Owens first drew national attention when he tied the 100-yard dash world record of 9.4 seconds as a Cleveland high school senior in 1933. That fall, he enrolled at Ohio State. Without a scholarship, Owens held multiple part-time jobs to pay for school and help support his wife, Ruth, and daughter, Gloria.
At the start of the day, Owens didn’t know if he could finish even one event. Five days earlier, he had injured his lower back falling down the stairs of his dorm, and Ohio State coach Larry Snyder considered holding Owens out of the meet. His back badly bruised, the Ohio Flyer had to be helped in and out of the car when the team traveled to Ann Arbor. Snyder decided they would assess Owens’ health status one event at a time.
In front of 5,000 spectators on a hot, sunny Saturday, the Buckeye sophomore lined up for the 100-yard dash at 3:15 p.m. Unable to warm up or stretch before the race, Owens got off to a slow start. He got into his flowing stride quickly and was ahead at the 30-yard mark. Perhaps the smoothest sprinter of all time, Owens crossed the line in 9.4 seconds, equaling the world mark. The Big Ten assigned six officials to time the event, each with a hand-held stopwatch. Half of them clocked Owens in 9.3, but the rules of the day stipulated that each runner receive the slowest time recorded. The Buckeye Bullet had tied the world record, and no one would run 9.3 for another 13 years.
Owens’ schedule allowed him only one attempt at the long jump, instead of the usual three. At 3:25 p.m., he flew down the runway and soared to a breathtaking 8.13m, becoming the first man to break the eight-meter barrier. Owens had shattered the world record by a whopping 15cm – only Bob Beamon in his legendary leap at the 1968 Mexico City Games has ever extended the world mark by more. Owens’ record stood for 25 years and would have placed him sixth at the 2016 Rio Olympics some 81 years later.
Less than ten minutes after setting a world record that would stand for a quarter-century, Owens lined up for the 220-yard dash. At the time, this race was run in a straight line on the track, so it was also contested as the 200m straightaway event. An athletic artist, the 165-pound Owens won by such a large margin that he looked alone on the track. He finished in 20.3 seconds, crushing the world record by three-tenths of a second.
Owens’ final event of the day was the 220-yard low hurdles, an event no longer contested at the NCAA or international level. While many track athletes, like Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, have combined sprinting with the long jump, no other athlete has been a sprinter, jumper and hurdler. At 4:00 p.m., running on dirt and with no starting blocks, Owens destroyed the field, going 22.6. The first to break 23 seconds, the swift and powerful Owens finished almost five meters ahead of his nearest rival.
On the same day that Babe Ruth hit career homers 712, 713 and 714 – the final three of his career – at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, James Cleveland “Jessie” Owens had won five events in three-quarters of an hour. The Ohio Flyer set four world records and almost single-handedly propelled Ohio State to the Big Ten championship, scoring 40 of the Buckeyes’ 40.2 points as OSU finished second.
Tom Harmon, a 17-year-old high school football player from Gary, Indiana, was in Ann Arbor on a recruiting visit when he decided to attend the meet. “If you ever saw him run,” said Harmon, who would go on to win the 1940 Heisman Trophy as a Michigan halfback, “one thing you never forgot about Owens is how fluid he was. He never seemed to have to shift into high gear.”
The following month, Owens swept the same four events at the NCAA Championships, then repeated as Big Ten and NCAA champion in 1936. At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Owens cemented his legacy, winning gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters, the long jump and the 4×100 relay in front of Adolph Hitler. His performance in Berlin – capturing four gold medals while smashing three world records — altered his life, and Owens would never compete as an Ohio State senior. The Buckeye Bullet finished his collegiate career with eight Big Ten titles and eight NCAA crowns. Ferry Field still stands. Outside the track is a plaque commemorating Owens’ record-shattering day. It is the only homage to an Ohio State Buckeye anywhere on Michigan’s campus.
Mr. Owens, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Gerald R. Ford in 1976, died of lung cancer in 1980. Each spring, Ohio State University hosts the Jesse Owens Classic, a track and field meet held at the 10,000-seat Jesse Owens Stadium in Columbus.