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But Beamon only went there once. He never again jumped even 27 feet, which only added to the record's mystique.
Then, beginning in 1981, came Lewis. Coached by Tom Tellez at Houston, possessed of greater speed than Beamon, Lewis mastered the delicate timing and body alignment of the takeoff and made himself the essence of consistency. By Tokyo, he had jumped beyond 28 feet 56 times, and his best was 28'10¼".
By the force of his numbers, Lewis demystified the record until it seemed inevitable it would be his. For years he even resisted jumping at altitude because he wanted no asterisks tainting his legacy.
But never was he struck with Beamon's sudden, inexplicable lightning. (One who was struck was the U.S.S.R.'s Robert Emmiyan, a basic 27'6" jumper who flew 29'1" at altitude in 1987.)
On his second try in Tokyo, Powell chopped his steps but still went 28'¼". His coach of four years, Randy Huntington of Walled Lake, Mich., signaled Powell to move his check marks back.
Powell was born in Philadelphia, moved to the West Coast when he was 11 and was a seven-foot high jumper for Edgewood High in West Covina, Calif. He became serious about the long jump at UC Irvine, and graduated from UCLA.
"Carl is a sprinter who jumps," said Huntington. "Mike is a jumper. His speed in the last 10 meters before the board is almost as great as Carl's."
For years, Powell lost to Lewis while struggling to gain control of his approach. Both Powell and his coach were convinced that his talent was real. In Seoul, Lewis handily beat Powell for the gold. Yet Huntington was nervy enough to introduce himself to Beamon by saying, "I'm the guy who's going to coach the guy who's going to break your record."
"He looked at me like, 'No more beer for this guy,' " recalls Huntington.
A full season of training brought Powell to Tokyo in the shape of his life. For metric-minded fans he signed autographs with "8.95?" which happens to convert to 29'4½". While receiving a 90-minute electromassage from physiologist Jack Scott the day before the long jump finals, Powell had no doubt that he would take the record. "I do wonder, though," he mused, almost idly, "if I'll win."