Riding to the stadium, he sat in the bus with sprinter Esther Jones and watched the numbers of license plates on passing cars. He read them as if they were metric numbers and found meaning in one, 9529, which to him translated to 8.95 meters, 29 feet. "I'm going to do it," he said to Jones.
On his third jump, Lewis sailed a wind-aided 28'11¾", the longest jump of his life. Powell had hit only 27'2½" on his third.
Lewis came back with a long one that felt so good he hurled an imploring look heavenward. But the wind reading was 2.9 meters per second, well over the limit. The distance flashed up 29'2¾", better than Beamon. Lewis had done it, but it could not stand as a record. He threw up his arms and showed a wrinkled grimace of excitement. He was a breath of air from perfection.
As he composed himself for his fourth attempt, Powell's expression seemed to acknowledge that he had grown old trying to beat Carl, and time was slipping away. His jump was high, the landing clean. But the judge at the board raised his red flag. Powell raced back to him and went to his knees begging that the jump be ruled fair. "I was playing," he said later. "I saw the mark my foot had left in the clay beyond the board."
Then Powell felt raindrops on his shoulders. He went cold. No, he thought. You're not going to do this to me. Stop.
The shower stopped. O.K., Powell thought. This is my shot.
On the runway for his fifth try, Powell meditated on the images of what he had to do, took four walking steps with his arms swinging loosely, gathered into a run, hit full speed as his singlet slipped over his left shoulder, struck the board hard two inches from the end, drove high off his left foot, performed a hitch kick with his head thrown far back, broke the sand in the vicinity of the nine-meter marker, swung right and burst from the pit thrusting his arms with what seemed righteous anger. Then for 30 seconds he nervously wandered around the infield to await the measurement.
The wind reading was a faint 0.3. If the jump exceeded Beamon's distance, it would count. The distance was 29'4½". The ultimate record was broken. Beamon was surpassed. Powell ran and danced.
But Powell's was not an unmixed ecstasy. He could still lose.
After the first shock, Lewis's face assumed a glittery-eyed look of almost good humor. He had to top a world record to win. His undefeated decade had been achieved by being supremely responsive to the pressure of battle. This, then, was the most dramatic opportunity of his life. He had two jumps left.