Carl Lewis was voted “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee, and “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated.
After competing in two Olympic Games, Lewis had won six gold medals across four events (100-Meter Dash, 200-Meter Dash, Long Jump and 4×100 Relay). He’d set two new Olympic records in the process. He had already built a legacy as one of the greatest track and field athletes in history. He could relax and enjoy his celebrity. Carl Lewis had nothing left to prove. Yet Lewis wasn’t ready to walk away. Gold wasn’t enough—he wanted to prove to himself he wasn’t just the best sprinter and jumper in the world, but the best sprinter and jumper in world history.
“In those days, (athletes competed in) one or two Olympics, (they) retired and (were) done. But I was never chasing medals. I was always chasing performance,” Lewis told STACK at the 2017 USATF Black Tie and Sneaker Gala. “I won four gold medals (at my first Olympics), I got gold in every event. But still, I didn’t have the world record in the 100 meter, the 200 meter or the Long Jump. And I hadn’t jumped 29 feet. My thing has always been about performance, not the reward.”
But Lewis’s age was doing him few favors in regard to his world record pursuits. After all, Bob Beamon—the man who set the mythical 29 feet, 2½ inch world record in the Long Jump—did so at 22 years old. Lewis was rapidly approaching 30 and he knew time was not on his side. “You turn 30 as an athlete and you say ‘oh my goodness, where are we going from here?’ Especially in our sport. I was in uncharted territory; people just didn’t have success at that age because they weren’t staying around (back then). So I was looking for all different kinds of ways to stay in the sport,” Lewis says. “(Changing my diet) was all a part of my evaluation of turning 30.”
Carl continued, “Dr. McDougall challenged me to make a commitment to eating a vegetarian diet and then to ‘just do it.’ Thousands of other world-class athletes have learned to follow a near-vegetarian diet simply because they have no other choice if they want to join the winners’ circle. By the nature of the foods, a winning athlete must eat mostly plants to obtain high-octane fuel (carbohydrate).”
Dr. McDougall writes: “Carl Lewis, the world’s fastest man, is my biggest claim to fame for an athlete who follows the McDougall Diet. He set the world record for the 100 meter dash, won two gold medals, and had the best long-jump series of his career (29 feet three times – these are considered the best series of jumps of all time) while following the McDougall diet.
“I met Carl Lewis in 1990 in Minneapolis one morning while we were both appearing on a TV talk show. He told me he was frustrated because all previous eating plans had either caused him to become overweight or left him too weak to compete and win (these were mostly low-calorie, portion-control diets). Shortly afterward he began eating our recommended low-fat, pure-vegetarian diet and his dilemma was resolved. Yes, he discovered there IS a diet that would allow him to look, feel, function, and perform at his best without ever being hungry – shouldn’t that be the way for all of us? In the introduction to his new cookbook, he says, ‘In fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet.’ “
1991 World Championships: Lewis’ greatest performances
Once Lewis was able to optimize his diet, he noticed a big uptick in his energy and vigor. The effects of his new diet were on full display at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. The event, which took place shortly after Lewis’s 30th birthday, is regarded as one of the most dominant displays in track and field history.
One of the greatest duels in the history of sport featured Lewis facing off against Mike Powell, who had been the top-ranked long jumper of 1990. But Lewis had also won 65 consecutive Long Jump meets entering the competition. The two traded jumps in the territory of 28 feet before Lewis unleashed a massive 29 feet, 2¾ inch jump. It was the longest jump recorded under any condition in human history. Amazingly, Powell out-jumped this mark by an inch-and-a-half on his next attempt and set a world record. Lewis would go on to jump over 29 feet in the competition two more times, but Powell took the gold medal. Powell’s world record still stands to this day. Regardless, Lewis had achieved something that had been a dream of his since childhood. He had jumped 29 feet, and he had out-jumped Bob Beamon. “This has been the greatest meet that I’ve ever had,” Lewis told Track and Field News shortly after the event.
In the 100 meter final, Lewis faced the two men who ranked number one in the world the previous two years: Burrell and Jamaican Raymond Stewart. In what would be the deepest 100 meters race ever to that time, with six men finishing in under ten seconds, Lewis not only defeated his opponents, he reclaimed the world record with a clocking of 9.86 seconds. Though previously a world-record holder in this event, this was the first time he had crossed the line with “WR” beside his name on the giant television screens, and the first time he could savor his achievement at the moment it occurred. His world record would subsequently stand for nearly three years. He could be seen with tears in his eyes afterwards. “The best race of my life,” Lewis said. “The best technique, the fastest; and I did it at thirty.”
Lewis’s longevity soon became legendary. At the 1996 Olympics, he won his fourth consecutive gold medal in the Long Jump at 35 years old. His nine Olympic gold medals are the most by a track and field athlete in modern history. “I actually had all my personal bests in the 100 and the Long Jump after I turned 30, after this diet change,” Lewis said. “I felt lighter, faster a