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.
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.