It's all about focus: Powell

It's all about focus: Powell
Mike Powell strode across the conference room of the Sree Kanteerava stadium, covering the way to the dais elegantly with his long strides.

On the floor marked was the distance that he leapt on that unforgettable August night in 1991 to gain immortality in his chosen field -- 29 feet, 4-1/4 inches. In more familiar terms, 8.95 metres.

Before August 30, 1991, Bob Beamon was the benchmark in long jump. His world record of 8.90 metres, set in the thin air of Mexico City in 1968, teased and tormented all comers for 23 years. With a monster jump in an epic duel with his fellow American Carl Lewis at the World Championships in Tokyo, Powell wiped out Beamon’s mark and inscribed his name in the record books.

The smile that lit up Tokyo that night seems to have stayed with the American even after 25 long years. No surprises there, for it was the jump that defined his career as he chased and defeated a man who had not lost in 65 competitions spanning ten years. Before Tokyo, the score read Carl Lewis 15, Mike Powell 0. “The World Championship was a statement about my life. Everything I did during my whole life until that point was encapsulated in that jump,” Powell, now 52, says. “Everything in my life that I had not achieved, every girl that turned me down for a date, every time I didn’t learn something. That was my moment to show the world.”

In Bengaluru as the International Event Ambassador of TCS World 10K, the long jump legend spoke about his record, his rivalry with Lewis and his sport in general. Excerpts:

Did you think your record would survive this long?

No. No way. I did not think it would last 20 minutes, let alone 25 years. I thought Carl Lewis is going to come and jump right after and break that record. I thought he would go about 9.10 metres, so I got to go 9.15 metres. When I jumped the world record and he was looking at me trying to get pumped up I was like ‘please Mr Lewis, please let me have the record. You already won everything else. Let me have my night please.’ He only did 8.87. The record shouldn't last this long. It's not good for the event. Records are meant to be broken.

How did you go about bre­aking the record?

I had to break it, I had to win. It's easier to do something when you have to. In a fight, Mike Tyson might beat you up. But if you got to beat up Mike Tyson to save your kids, I bet you'll beat him up then. That is the way I tried to compete. I got a chance to watch Carl and all the other jumpers who were doing more than 8.15, 8.16. So, I learnt what they were doing. The guys now, they don't know what they are doing. It's pretty simple to me — they are not using speed. To go that far, you have to go fast. You have to accelerate into that board. They are so fixated on the board that they are jumping to the board and we just used to jump up to the sky.

Did you have a hunter's mentality at the time, going after Lewis the way you did?

Oh, yeah. Definitely. I had to with Carl, he was the man, he was the guy in the sport, he had set the standard. But to me, I looked at him like another guy to beat. He happens to be one of the best ever. But if he can do it, I can do it. That was the way I looked at it. There is a movie, The Edge. Anthony Hopkins said in the movie, 'what one man can do, another can do'. That's true. So, I don't put anything past myself or with anybody else. If you put the mind to it, put the work in and don't give up, you are going to get it done.

What were factors on that night that made you both jump big?

Carl had just broken the world record in 100M. And the key to jumping long is running fast. So in my mind I had to break the record to beat him. Then on top of that I hated Carl. He was my idol at first but after I started competing, I thought I had to demonise this guy. So if he didn’t speak to me, I would be like ‘he didn’t speak to me.’ If he did, I would be like, ‘he said this to me.’  Whatever he did, he was my enemy. 

Why do you think this record is still intact?

It's a hard record to break. The long jump has always been this way. If you go back to the beginning of the century in 1900, there was a guy who had a record for 21 years. Jesse Owens had the record for 25 years. Bob Beamon had it for 23 years and I have had it for 25 years. To me, the long jump is the hardest event to do. You have to have a sprinter's speed and then go up in the air with it and land safely. It is very difficult to get that transition from horizontal speed to vertical lift. That is the trick. The young guys are not able to do it.

You have the world record but not an Olympic gold...

It’s still disappointing, it hurts. To me, Carl beat me with his mind. You know, and I allowed him to do that. He can’t do it now, back then he did. He’s a master. He knew that if I got that big jump out there early, it’s hard. It’s hard to come back at 8.60 and 8.70 he went out there and he wanted to win. The Olympics (1992) was bad, I lost the gold by three centimetres.

Would you swap your record for the gold?

I’ll take the world record. Carl asks me this all the time. He asked: ‘Man you got that record.’ And I go: ‘Man you got nine gold medals, so give me a break. You want everything? So if you give me four of those medals and I get to choose the ones that I want. Then I’ll change for that. (Decathlon legend) Daley Thompson told me something in 1996 that really saved me. After I didn’t win the medal there, I was hurt. Thompson told me, ‘Mike, you are not measured by the gold medals but by the world record.’

In this particular case, in long jump, the world record stands above the gold. Look at Greg Rutherford, he won the gold in 2012 and everybody is talking about him because he jumped so short. But he has something that I don’t have. But those guys had it easy. I had to break a 20-year-old world record and beat a guy who hadn’t lost for 10 years and a guy who just finished breaking the 100M record.

You helped Anju George prepare for the 2004 Oly­mpics...

That was fun and I wish I kept working with her. She still had a lot more in her. She was an Olympian, had a great jumping ability and way better landing than I had. She didn’t work on her speed and I didn’t have enough time to teach her that.

What do you look for in aspiring youngsters?

(Taps on his heart). Heart, I look for his heart. Then I go into how fast they are and how far they can jump. But if they don’t have the heart, it doesn’t matter. You have to train hard and you have to be so strong mentally to beat the competition. And (you have to) focus, that’s hard. I didn’t do it in 1992 (at the Barcelona Olympic Games). I lose it a bit too.

Where does mental stre­ngth come in?

It’s the No 1 thing. People who have been successful in any line of work, (they are) strong mentally and (have) belief beyond anything. I can sit here and dream of breaking the world record (again) and you guys will say I’m crazy. You gotta have that belief. Everybody will be against you. It’s easy to be human and start questioning yourself. ‘May be silver is not bad after all’, stuff (like that) creeps into your head.

It’s all about focus. Get a good plan, programme and system together. Then make that system consistent and put in the work. The work, the work, the work, the work, the work, the work, the work. No matter what it is, the work comes first. If I have to work on my flexibility, if it takes 10 hours of stretching a day for making my head reach the knee, I will do that. Because that’s how focused I am.

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