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Picture of Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens

James Cleveland Owens, one of the most famous athletes in track and field history, was born in Danville, Alabama, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio when he was nine. The name "Jesse" came from a teacher mistaking the pronunciation of his initials, J.C.

Owens first gained recognition when he set a national record in the 100-meter dash while a high school senior. He enrolled at Ohio State University and worked as an elevator operator to help pay his tuition, since he did not receive an athletic scholarship.

As a sophomore at Ohio State, Owens broke three world records and tied one at the 1935 Big Ten Outdoor Championships at Ann Arbor, Michigan. He accomplished these feats in a 45-minute period, despite a back injury resulting from a fall down a flight of stairs.

Owens' greatest feat came at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where he won four gold medals. Owens won the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the broad jump, and he led off the victorious United States 400-meter relay team. Adolf Hitler, Nazi leader, refused to congratulate Owens or any of the other Black Olympic medalists, which may have contributed more to Owens' fame than his track and field victories.

Owens did not receive any recognition from the United States for his Olympic performance until 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Jimmy Carter gave Owens the Living Legends Award in 1979.

Jesse Owens died on March 31, 1980 and President Carter added his voice to the tributes that poured in from around the world. "Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans." In 1990, President George H.W. Bush honored Jesse Owens with the Congressional Gold Medal, presented to his widow, Ruth S. Owens.

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