Ranked by ESPN as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the 20th century, Jesse Owens was an American track-and-field athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. But where did the athlete grow up?
Jesse Owens (1913-1980) was born in Oakville, Alabama, where he grew up with his parents and nine older brothers and sisters. He and his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio when Owens was nine, and it was there that he recognized and pursued his passion for running.
Read on to learn more about the athlete’s childhood and incredible talent.
The tenth and last child of Henry and Mary Emma Owens, Jesse was the grandson of former slaves and grew up helping his father, a sharecropper, pick cotton in the fields.
Jesse was a frail and sickly child who battled pneumonia and chronic bronchial congestion as a youngster, in addition to receiving surgery, from his mother, to remove a fibrous lump on his chest.
The Owens family were devout Baptists who attended the Oakville Missionary Baptist Church and Jessee attended the schoolhouse in the week.
Jesse would play in the fields that his father farmed, running barefoot, and of his time in Oakville, Owens reportedly said:
“I always loved running, I wasn’t very good at it, but I loved it because it was something you could do all by yourself, all under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.”
The family migrated to Cleveland, Ohio in 1922, hoping for better prospects, and it was in Cleveland that Jesse’s talents were first noticed and encouraged.
As a student at Fairmont Junior High School, Jesse’s athletic ability was spotted by his coach Charles Riley, whose encouragement had a lasting impact on Jesse’s approach to the sport. Jesse was working after school to support his family, and as he was unable to attend track training after school, Riley offered to train him in the mornings.
After earning his medals at the 1936 Olympics Jesse remembered his coach and said, “As I’d learned long ago from Charles Riley, the only victory that counts is the one over yourself”.
Jesse set school records at junior high school but came to national attention as a student at East Technical High School. Whilst there, he tied the world record in the 100-yard dash with a time of 9.4 seconds and was elected president of the senior class and captain of the track team in his senior year.
Breaking Records and Barriers
Though he received several university offers as a result of his athletic talent, Jesse chose to stay close to home and enrolled at Ohio State University after graduating high school.
There, he trained under coach Larry Snyder and in May 1935, Owens set five world records at the Big Ten Finals in Ann Arbour, all within the space of 45 minutes. Incredibly, Owens competed in 42 events that year and won them all.
The next year, whilst still a student, Owens won four gold medals across seven days at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games, and broke two Olympic records.
His athletic achievements are considered even more legendary given that the 1936 Summer Games were intended as an opportunity for Hitler to prove his theory of Aryan racial superiority. Instead Owens, an African-American man, was hailed as nothing less than a hero.
Although Owens never actually finished his degree, he was later awarded an honorary doctorate of athletic arts from the University where he finished his ‘growing up’, “for his unparalleled skills and ability”.