Jesse OwensPosted on December 6th at 3:34 pm
Jesse Owens used to tell people that he had loved to run for as long as he could remember. “It was something you could do by yourself and under your own power,” he would say. “You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted…seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.”
It’s an apt metaphor for how Jesse lived his life. The son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave, he grew up to achieve the highest plateau in sports. Ohio State University didn’t have a scholarship to offer him in 1933, but Jesse worked his way through school, and along the way made track and field history when he shattered three world records in 1935.
When he arrived to compete in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the Nazis were decrying African-American athletes as “auxiliaries” at best and “non-human” at worst, but Jesse was focused on the task at hand. He won four gleaming gold medals—more than any American track-and-field athlete had ever won in a single Olympiad—and took the world’s breath away.
Fans cheered the humiliation of Hitler, but it was never about politics for Jesse, who understood that he lived in a complex world where his victories brought him acclaim but not civil rights. He said his greatest satisfaction came from working to empower underprivileged youth. In his lifetime Jesse received such high honors as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When he died in 1980, his family and friends established the Jesse Owens Foundation in memory of the man who started out in life with nothing but the strength of his own feet. To this day the foundation gives scholarships to individuals with the “ambition, dedication and courage to achieve success against significant personal odds.”
His was an investment in a life of uncompromising commitment.