Leap of a lifetime: the day Bob Beamon defied gravity.
It's 80 degrees and sunny on a mid-February morning as Beamon stares at the aqua-blue horizon from his ocean-view high-rise near Miami. The morning sun reflects off the water. "I am looking at the water as boats are going by," he says. "It's a beautiful sight. Life is great for me. Life is what you want it to be. It really is."
If anyone is a testament to that statement, it's 61-year-old Beamon. From his parentless childhood growing up poor on the rough streets of Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., Beamon has carved a wonderful life for himself, capped by the most-celebrated record in U.S. Olympic history.
Beamon didn't get a lot of encouragement as a child. Raised by his grandmother, his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 11 months old, and he never knew his father. He struggled with doubt, thinking he was unwanted, for many of his early years. In high school, a coach offered a glimmer of hope, saying he had the talent to go to the Olympics if he kept working hard. And he did.
Has it really been 40 years since Beamon literally walked on air, obliterating world and Olympic records with a long jump of 29 feet 2 1/2 inches at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City?
"Does it seem like 40 years?" he asks rhetorically. "Yes, particularly when I try to get out of bed in the morning, or when I try to do something like bench press 100 pounds. But it still is wonderful for me to reflect on it. It keeps me focused. I definitely think about that jump all the time. Yep, all the time."
Six Seconds of Air Time
The record jump didn't end as just another special track-and-field moment. It has evolved into one of the most remembered and most discussed singular athletic feats in history, right up there with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.
Olympic records seem to come and go every four years, but those six seconds on Oct. 18, 1968--a mere 1/10 of a minute--altered Beamon's life forever, ensuring his financial stability, his fame and legacy for decades to come. Bear in mind, at that time no long-jumper in the world had ever surpassed 28 feet. Beamon not only broke the world record--he shattered it and held it for more than two decades. Mike Powell subsequently broke the world record in 1991 with a jump of 29 feet, 4 3/8 inches, but Beamon's Olympic record lives on--four decades and counting.
"I always thought that records are made to be broken," Beamon says. "But when Mike Powell broke it, he said, 'If I have to choose between the world record and the Olympic gold medal, I would want the gold medal.' I found that very interesting. So it's great for me to still have that. I hope it continues. Maybe I have to start training again in case someone does break it during the Olympics."
With that, Beamon laughs, knowing he wouldn't be able to find the time. He's as busy as ever, finding ways to give time, money and inspiration back to his community.
Making It Real for Kids
Beamon has spent most of the past 40 years working with underprivileged children. He has been a trustee for the United Way, a spokesperson for the Children's Courts as an advocate against legislation to prosecute troubled children as adults, and he has hosted the Bob Beamon Celebrity Golf and Tennis Classic in South Florida for the past 10 years to raise money for children's causes. His Bob Beamon Organization for Youth Inc. is dedicated to providing a path for troubled children to receive education, housing and health services.
Eloquent and thought-provoking, Beamon has become a sought-after public speaker. "I have a few messages, but education is the main thing," he says. "It's to get kids to deal with reality. A 4-year-old deals with Disney. We have much older kids with the mentality of 4-year-olds, when the only thing they think about is having money, cars and homes. But they never think about what the major plan would be to get all of that.
"They need to think, 'By chance, if I fail as an athlete, do I have a Plan B or a Plan C?' But most of them don't have any plans at all; that is generally the hip-hop world in which they live. Everybody wants the bling-bling right now. Many of them become involved in drugs or something else, and it's a dirty world when they get into drugs. Then it's no longer Disney World."
The number of children he has reached is incalculable. A few years ago, at a Manhattan hotel where he was a guest, the hotel's assistant manager approached him. "Remember me, Mr. Beamon?" the young man asked. Beamon smiled but shook his head.
"One day you gave an incredible speech at our school," the young man told him. "I just followed what you said and tried to make something of myself. I just wanted to thank you for it."
Beamon stresses to children the opportunities that are in front of them, if only they're willing to prepare and work hard to take advantage of the opportunities they find. He compares their situations to those in Third World countries, hoping to awaken a sense of appreciativeness.
"You know, overseas in the little villages of Africa, for example, there is no hope," he says. "The children are dying of diseases and hunger and they can't get medicine. Our kids here are throwing away food. We are really blessed over here, and I tell them that. I tell them, I don't care "I had one Soot in the grave and one on the fence what color your skin is, what nationality you are or what religion you preach, there is opportunity here.
Beamon's latest project, the "Beamonesque LEADers," is a program that teaches life skills to a group of 15 high school seniors over a six-month period. Chosen from a large group of applicants, the 15 have to earn a grade point average of at least 3.2. When those 15 go on to college, another 15 will be chosen. And so on.
'A Foot in the Grave'
There were no such programs when Beamon did what he could to survive growing up in a neighborhood he calls "one of the real hellholes in the country."
If not for the grandmother who raised him, "I don't know what I would have done," he says. "It was extremely difficult. I had one foot in the grave and one foot on the fence growing up. Sometimes I walked on the side that could have led me to be incarcerated for life. My attention was on the street action."
When Beamon reflects on his childhood, it spurs him to go the extra mile for children today. "I was a disadvantaged child, but people stepped up to the plate for me," he says. "It is something I feel I must always keep in mind. So I need to step up to the plate for others. I know it is impossible to save all the kids ... but it is possible to save some."
Basketball, specifically, helped Beamon escape the troubled path he walked. He became all-city in basketball and then a high school All-American in track and field. His ability eventually led him to a track scholarship at the University of Texas-El Paso. It was there, in 1967, that track coach Wayne Vandenberg said, "One day soon, Bob Beamon is going to make a jump that you won't believe and I won't believe."
The unbelievable came the following fall in Mexico City as the world watched.
As a backdrop to his record, Beamon had fouled on two qualifying attempts. A third foul during qualifying would send him home heartbroken without a medal. He relaxed on his final qualifying attempt, and on the advice of a fellow competitor took off short of his mark to be sure not to be disqualified. It worked. He qualified and he went into Mexico City that night, downed a shot of tequila and retired to the dormitory.
"I relaxed," he says. "Then I got a good night sleep."
The next day, he struck lightning. He ran as fast as he could on his approach, then eased up on his take-off step, soaring through the air as his legs pumped, finally landing with his feet perfectly together.
By the time his feet touched earth, he somehow, some way, had jumped one foot, 10 1/2 inches farther than he ever had before and one foot and 9 3/4 inches farther than any human had jumped in any event in history.
"I was as surprised as anybody," Beamon says. "I Just wanted to win the gold medal. I wasn't thinking about how far I had to jump or setting records."
Platform for Greatness
With the jump, Beamon's fame, popularity and opportunity soared. There have been two books written about his life, The Perfect Jump by the late noted sports author Dick Schapp, and an autobiography by Beamon, The Man Who Could Fly: The Bob Beamon Story. Sports Illustrated labeled the record jump as one of the five greatest, sports moments of the 20th century.
Beamon has met with international leaders, attended state dinners, mingled with celebrities. He's met every president since Lyndon Johnson, whom he asked for a job during their first greeting. "I was serious," he says. "I needed a summer job." Johnson just smiled.
Who among all the notables has impressed him most? "I think Muhammad Ali is at the top of the list," he says. "He has created so much excitement around the world. Sometimes when I am with him, I find myself so excited just to be around him. I know him well, and I love him like a brother."
It's been a wonderful, improbable, astonishing ride for Beamon, starting with a sprint of 19 strides and a jump the length of a first down in football. And it all lasted all of six seconds.
Forty years later, it begs the question: What would have happened to Beamon had he not made the record jump or had he fouled for the third time and been disqualified? The persistence, work and commitment that took him to Mexico City wouldn't have been in vain. Once Beamon saw beyond Jamaica, Queens, there was no going back.
"I probably would have become a doctor or a lawyer," he says. "But I'll take my life as it is. It's been 40 years and it still hasn't sunk in. I guess I am still in Disney World."
With that, he laughs again and goes back to work. There are more boats to watch on the horizon and children to save.
Jeff Snook writes about sports and has authored eight books, including two about Ohio State Buckeyes' football.
RELATED ARTICLE: FROM ADVERSITY TO GLORY
Heeding mentors: "At Jamaica High School In New York, my track coach, Larry Ellis, who has since passed away, told me I could probably make the Olympics if I worked hard. He gave me something to shoot for. That I made it tells you that you can always reach your goals if you follow your heart."
Positive focus: Growing up parentless amid violence, drugs and gangs, Beamon had trouble reading and writing, and was in and out of trouble. As he started to excel in sports, he focused on his strengths and set his sights on positive goods. "That changed my life," he says. Regardless of that Olympic record, he had demonstrated to himself that he could achieve whatever he put his mind to achieving.
Staying motivated: "I get motivated by children--there is always something to do with children to make their lives better; just knowing I can make a difference. And there is never a dull moment."
Recognizing opportunity: Beamon stresses to children that they have many opportunities. "I don't care what color your skin is, what nationality you are or what religion you preach, there is opportunity here in this country."
Beamon still holds the Olympic record he shattered in 1968--four decades and counting.
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|Title Annotation:||Lessons from Sports|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2008|
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