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Jesse Owens

Athletic Success As A Teenager

Owens enrolled in Cleveland's Fairmount Junior High School around 1927 and quickly attracted the attention of a mentor who would prove crucial in his future athletic success. Charles Riley worked at the school as a physical education teacher and track-and-field coach and immediately realized that Owens was a naturally gifted athlete who had not yet taken up serious training. Riley started a rigorous training program for Owens in special morning sessions before school. Within a year, Owens was running the 100-yard dash in eleven seconds and in 1928 he set two world records for his age group in the high jump, at six feet, and the long jump, at twenty-two feet, eleven and three-quarters inches. Under Riley's instruction to run as though the track were on fire, Owens also improved his times on the track. Of the seventy-nine races he entered in high school, Owens won seventy-five of them. Owens also formed a warm personal relationship off the track with Riley, who continued to coach him after he entered East Technical High School in 1930. After Henry Owens suffered a traffic accident in 1929 and experienced extended periods of unemployment in the Great Depression, Riley's role as a surrogate father was especially important to the young athlete.


1913 Born September 12 in Danville, Alabama to Henry and Mary Owens
1922 Owens family moves to Cleveland, Ohio
1928 Sets two world junior-high school records in high jump and long jump
1930 Sets high school records in long jump, 100-yard dash, and 200-yard dash
1933 Leads East Technical High School to National Interscholastic Championship
1933 Enters Ohio State University on track-and-field scholarship
1935 Marries Minnie Ruth Solomon
1935 Sets five meet records at the Big Ten Track and Field Championship
1936 Wins four Gold Medals at the Berlin Olympics
1936 Ends amateur athletic career
1943 Works in personnel department of Ford Motor Company
1946 Opens public relations firm in Chicago
1953 Receives appointment to Illinois State Athletic Commission
1965 Receives conviction for income tax evasion.
1968 Criticizes African-American athletes at Mexico City Olympic Games for giving "Black Power" salute on awards stand
1974 Induction into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame
1976 Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom
1980 Dies in Tucson, Arizona on March 31
1983 Induction into the US Olympic Committee Hall of Fame

As an East Tech track-and-field sensation, Owens became a nationally renown athlete while still in his teens. Although he failed to make the national team in his tryout for the 1932 Olympic Games to be held in Los Angeles, his performance at the June 1933 National Interscholastic Championship, held in Chicago, was stunning. Winning the long jump, 220-yard dash, and 100-yard dash, Owens set and tied the world records in the latter two events. When he returned to Cleveland, the nineteen-year-old was honored with a parade. Several universities competed to offer Owens a place on their track-and-field squads, but Ohio State University (OSU) came up with the best offer. In exchange for an undemanding job as a page in the Ohio State Legislature and the promise of a weekly stipend for attending local civic functions, Owens enrolled at OSU in the fall of 1933. The school also agreed to overlook Owens's lack of a high school diploma, as he had left East Tech before completing all of his required courses.

Now earning a substantial sum of money during the depths of the Depression, Owens sent much of funds back to his parents as well as to longtime girlfriend, (Minnie) Ruth Solomon, who had given birth to their daughter on August 8, 1932. The couple married on July 5, 1935, allegedly after a Cleveland newspaper reporter threatened to publish a photo of their daughter along with an unflattering portrait of the athlete's personal life. The Owenses subsequently had two more daughters. Although talk about his infidelities persisted throughout their union—including his siring of a child by another woman—the couple remained married up to the time of Jesse Owens's death in 1980. Ruth Solomon Owens died in 2001 at the age of eighty-six.

Owens indeed had a lot to lose in a scandal, as he had vaulted into the front ranks of Olympic hopefuls with his masterful performance at the Big Ten Track and Field Championship held in Ann Arbor on Mary 25, 1935. Suffering from a sore back in the early stages of the meet, Owens surprised everyone in the final rounds of the competition. His 220-yard dash, 220-yard hurdles, 200-meter dash, and 200-meter low hurdles times were all new world records—as was his winning broad jump effort—and his time in the 100-yard dash tied the existing world record of 9.4 seconds. Owens's achievement stands as perhaps the best single-day accomplishment of any track-and-field athlete in the history of the discipline.

For his feats at the 1935 Big Ten Championship, Owens seemed certain of winning the James E. Sullivan Award, given annually by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to the country's best amateur athlete. When it was revealed that OSU sponsors had paid some of the athlete's travel expenses in the guise of reimbursing him for his job in the State Legislature, however, Owens was taken off the list of candidates for the award. More troubling to his future, he had also been threatened with being stripped of his amateur status altogether by the AAU. In the end, the AAU decided that Owens's offense was unintentional. Owens faced another challenge when he was placed on academic probation by OSU for his continuing poor performance in his course work. Owens managed to continue as a full-time student through 1936, but later took classes only intermittently; in 1941 he left OSU altogether without completing a degree.

Related Biography: Coach Charles Riley

Charles Riley was born in 1878 and grew up in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, where he labored as a miner and mill worker. Although he dropped out of high school to work, Riley later attended Temple University in Philadelphia and eventually secured a job as a teacher and coach at Fairmount Junior High School in Cleveland, Ohio. The job paid so little that Riley had to work as a playground superintendent during the summer to support his family, including one son who was born crippled.

Immediately realizing Jesse Owens's potential, Riley took the junior high schooler under his wing with extra practice sessions held in the morning so as not to interfere with the youngster's after-school work obligations. He also invited Owens to his home and treated him like a member of his own family, rare in a time of both informal and legal racial segregation. Owens considered Riley as his second father, and Riley held Owens in equal regard.

Riley's contributions to his student's development occurred both on and off the field. Riley helped to refine Owens's running style; after taking him to see race horses in training to inspire his student, Owens's performance improved markedly. Owens also credited Riley with telling him to run as though the track were on fire, with quick fluid steps and an upright carriage. The advice was a departure from the standard running style of the time and gave Owens an edge against his competition. Off the track, Riley's relationship with Owens gave the young man the confidence he needed to break the racial barriers that then frequently denied equal opportunities to African Americans.

Riley retired and moved to Florida in 1943. Between 1946 and 1960 he had no contact with his acclaimed former pupil, an experience that left him disillusioned. Despite the disappointment, he accepted an invitation to honor Owens at a 1960 television broadcast of This Is Your Life. It was the last time that the coach and his former pupil would meet, as Riley died later that year.

Awards and Accomplishments

1928 Gold Medals, 100-yard dash and 200-yard dash, National Interscholastic Championship
1935 Gold Medals, 100-yard dash, 220-yard dash, broad jump, 220-yard hurdles, 200-meter dash, and 200-meter low hurdles
1936 Olympic Gold Medals, 100-meter dash, long jump, 200-meter dash, and 400-meter relay
1936 Associated Press Athlete of the Year
1974 Induction into the U.S.A. Track and Field Hall of Fame
1976 Presidential Medal of Freedom
1983 Induction into the U.S. Olympic Committee Hall of Fame

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsTrack and FieldJesse Owens - Part Of The Great Migration, Athletic Success As A Teenager, Chronology, Related Biography: Coach Charles Riley