When the dust settled on the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Carl Lewis had nothing left to prove.
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. 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.
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“In those days, people went to one or two Olympics, you retired and you’re 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, the 200 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 regards 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.”
Perhaps the most incredible aspect of Lewis’s early career success is that he achieved it while barely eating. Early on, Lewis had figured out that being lighter helped him run faster and jump higher. However, in these days before sports nutritionists were the norm for any high-level competitive athlete, Lewis ended up taking that idea to the extreme.
“I knew all along that your weight was extremely important to success. So I wanted to make sure I kept my weight down. I got to a point where that was more important (to me) than eating. My diet actually became unhealthy because I wasn’t eating enough. I was technically dieting the wrong way,” Lewis says. “There was a point where I would never eat breakfast, eat lunch maybe two days a week, then just eat dinner every day. That was it. To keep my weight down. Then I realized over time that was not healthy. It happened because people were around me and saying, you never eat. I had just gotten so used to it. Then I started to seek out information.”
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Lewis needed a diet that could provide him with plenty of sustenance without bogging him down. During a TV appearance in 1990, he met Dr. John McDougall, one of the earliest public advocates of the benefits of a plant-based diet. His beliefs instantly intrigued Lewis. Shortly thereafter, Lewis met the late Jay Kordich on a radio show. Kordich was known as “The Father of Juicing,” and he explained to Lewis how juicing might benefit an athlete like him.
“I got more information about the vegan diet, about juicing, about all these kind of things,” Lewis said. He eventually settled on a plant-based diet with no animal products—aka, a vegan diet. “I selected a day I was going to (start) it,” Lewis said. “At first, there were challenges.”
For six months, Lewis struggled to make the diet work for him. He immediately lost a significant amount of weight and he often felt lethargic. Lewis initially believed the problem was that he wasn’t getting enough protein with the new diet, but the actual issue was much more simple—he wasn’t consuming enough calories. Due to the high-fiber, low-calorie nature of many vegan-friendly foods, new vegans often struggle to consume enough calories. For Lewis—a man who was used to eating so little food before he switched to veganism—the struggle was even greater.
“We discussed it and the problem wasn’t protein—I was eating plenty of protein. I wasn’t eating enough calories. That’s what I realized. You have to really eat in order to get the calories. And remember, I was someone who wasn’t eating very much. Breakfast was like taboo. So the biggest adjustment I had to make was to actually start eating,” Lewis said. Lewis, who first began employing a private chef in 1985, found that having someone else cook for him made the transition to veganism much more feasible.
“A lot of people say ‘Oh, it’s good to do a vegan diet.’ Well it’s not that easy, especially as an athlete, unless you have someone that’s prioritizing your meals,” Lewis says. “Obviously, you have to eat more. You have to watch what you eat. You have to find things and figure out ways to make it work. It took a while for my body to adjust and figure it out and for my cook to (bulk) up my meals, slide in the snacks (throughout the day). It really took six months for me to figure it out.”
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. 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.
It began with his performance in the finals of the 100-Meter Dash. Facing a stacked field, Lewis went on to win the gold and set a world record with a time of 9.86 seconds. His world record would subsequently stand for nearly three years. “(It was) the best race of my life,” Lewis told ESPN. “The best technique, the fastest. And I did it at 30.”
Next came one of the greatest duels in the history of sport. It 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.
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 and fitter.”
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