He would sit all alone in his living room, often for hours at a time, waiting until the daylight had drained out of the walls and the room was cool and dark. That way he could see the dream better, as if it were a movie whose image fades in the light. When the hairs finally began to stand up on the back of his neck, Mike Powell would walk slowly to the back of the house, turn, then wait until he could sec it squarely in front of him again.
He would come bounding out of the TV room, turn left after he passed through the foyer, then make another sharp left as he entered the living room. "By the time I got to the dining room I would jump, and I would visualize myself breaking the world record," Powell says. Of course, this became more complicated after he bought a dining table a few months ago. Sometimes he would break the world record; sometimes he would break the world record and a salad plate.
The record was Bob Beamon's long jump mark of 29'2½", set during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, and for nearly a quarter of a century shrouded in the thin air and heavy breathing of incense and mythology. To break such a record would require from a man a perfect leap of faith. "Sometimes I would just be sitting there on the couch, and all of a sudden here came Mike," says Karen Koellner, Powell's girlfriend of three years. "He would come running through the living room, take off, then the minute he landed he'd throw his hands in the air and start jumping up and down. He always broke the record. Every time."
Powell never deprived himself of the elation the moment would bring. "I could actually feel it, feel the rush in my head," he says. "I've imagined that moment in my living room a hundred times."
Powell's moment finally arrived three weeks ago at the World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo, where in a single instant he raised the world record in the long jump to 29'4½" and raised his unlikely dream—Powell's previous best jump in competition was a wind-aided 28'7¾"—to a full-blooded reality. "I've been dreaming about this for two years, and when I'd tell people, they would laugh in my face," says Powell. "Nobody gave me credit. So not to say 'In your face,' but...In your face."
Powell also did some jumping in his Tokyo hotel room, leaping past potted plants and lacquered furniture to so many world records that the people in the room below his no doubt had a vision of Powell, too—in hell with his back broken.
It had been two years since Powell first realized that the record was within his reach. One of the judges at a meet he had competed at in Houston walked over to where he was sitting after a particularly long foul and told Powell his jump had measured 29'2½". Powell's problems gauging his approach to the takeoff board became so well known that the other jumpers called him Mike Foul. Sometimes he would land only one or two legal jumps in his six attempts.
"Mike is an emotional jumper," says Randy Huntington, Powell's coach. "His technique often depends on the height of his emotions." His unchecked adrenaline rushes finally became so troubling that last year Powell consulted a psychologist, who worked with him on containing his emotions during competition. He is still not the perfect master of his feelings, as he proved in Tokyo when he hyperventilated so badly before his first jump in the final round that he went only 25'9¼", nearly three feet short of Carl Lewis's first jump. "I was so hyped up to beat Carl, I couldn't even breathe," Powell says.
Lewis had not lost a long jump competition in 10 years, but Powell, who was 0 for 15 against him, had drawn to within half an inch of his more famous rival at the TAC championships in New York City three months ago. "That was the clincher," Powell says. "After that I told a lot of people I was going to get him the next time we met." That meeting should have happened in August in Sestierre, Italy, but Lewis withdrew, complaining of a bad back when the weather suddenly turned cold and damp. "He ran from me in Sestierre," Powell says. "If you're going to be a champion, you have to be a champion under all conditions, not just when everything's going your way." Powell says that two of his fouls in Italy were measured at more than 29 feet, and by the time he left Europe and headed for Tokyo, his low personal regard for Lewis had turned into an indignation he scarcely bothered to suppress.
In Tokyo, Lewis suggested that the feeling was mutual with his customary mix of brilliance and hauteur, both by jumping 29 feet or farther three times and by glaring at Powell as the latter prepared to jump. "It was almost like he was proclaiming he was the king," Powell says. "Carl's been at the top for so long, I think this was the first time somebody had challenged him, not only in the pit, but in the little mental games that we play with each other. I Lake it as a challenge if somebody's going to put something like that in my face."