Carl Lewis Wants To Make Positive Changes Everywhere, And His Next Challenge Is HBCUs

Carl Lewis is known by a lot of people for a lot of things. He’s one of the most decorated American athletes in Olympic history with nine gold medals to his name, including four straight medals in the long jump. Lewis coaches track at the University of Houston, where he once ran on his way to being named Olympian of the Century by Sports Illustrated. He’s also something of a meme online, especially when things go sideways at sporting events.

To talk to Lewis, though, is to get a glimpse of a worldview much different than that meme. He’s all about progress, a positive and enthusiastic man now teaching athletes rather than competing with them. Lewis is active on social media, critiquing inequality everywhere, especially in sports. Which perhaps is why he’s advocating for Silk’s Team Protein initiative to help five Historically Black Colleges and Universities with $10,000 donations to their track and field programs. Whichever programs win will be rivals to his school at meets and events, but for Lewis the larger picture matters much more.

“I just hope that whenever I pass through something,” Lewis said. “That I’ve left it better — and helped to do that — than when it was when I got there.”

Lewis spoke with Uproxx by phone ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Games to talk about preparing for the Olympics, his role in track and field today and what kind of legacy he’d like to leave behind in sports. He also gave me some very good running advice.

First of all we should talk about the Olympics. This is definitely one of the weirdest leadups to the Olympics in modern history. Are you still looking forward to the Games? I wanted to get your perspective on the games and how you prepare for something that’s been delayed and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what it’s going to look like.

Well basically, for me, it’s unique because I started coaching at the University of Houston in 2015 and now I have athletes in the Olympics. Of course I competed for many years and then went from a business standpoint, and now I’ll be catching. So it’s a whole new world for me in regard to that.

I think it’s interesting when athletes start coaching and move into that sphere, a lot of times there’s a disconnect. You’ve done incredible things in your career, but sometimes athletes understand their bodies differently. How long did it take you to find your groove as a coach and sort of understand how other people train and learn and grow?

The way I looked at it, instead of coaching I just thought of it as teaching. I’m basically at the same university I went to using the same system that the coach that coached me did. So I just take it as a teacher. My parents were both teachers, so I saw that happen.

And the biggest thing is that you’re dealing with kids, young people, who are between 17 and 23. So my thought is I’m not just here to coach them and win off of them, because I’ve had my own success, but to teach them to grow and live and be a better person in this world. So my focus is on the total person, especially coaching a lot of young African-American young men because they’re sprinters. So that’s the way I’ve looked at it, and fortunately we’ve had success. But it’s really about development. Develop athletically, we take kids, not the best, No. 1 kids in the country in most cases, and we develop them to be the best. And that comes not just as an athlete, but as a person.

That’s really refreshing to hear because there’s so much specialization in athletics now. So many people for so long say you have to choose early what you want to do. And to think about it as just a human being who’s learning and growing and figuring themselves out while they’re trying to excel athletically, I think that’s a really important perspective.

Yeah, you know what’s interesting that I see now is my parents were coaches, teachers and all of that. And strangely enough you grow up saying ‘Oh, my god, I can’t wait to get out of the house.’ And then you get out of the house and I become one of them. [laughs]

But it’s something I’m proud of, I had wonderful parents and wonderful opportunity. And I see the value in support in a young person, because I had support from every direction and I know it had impact in my life.

I wanted to ask about what you’re doing with Silk. It’s a really cool idea and obviously HBCUs are historically underfunded. And you’re very passionate about systemic issues in society and helping young people, so this seems like a perfect fit. Why was it so important for you to do?

Well, to be honest a number of reasons. Number one, my relationship with Silk. Because I started with Silk and soy milk products since the 1980s. And I’ve had a plant-based diet since then. So there’s definitely a connection to that point.

And then the HBCU initiative because I, basically, as a track coach I see HBCU programs and I see some of the challenges. Whether it’s Texas Southern down here or Prairie View, which I know very well, or my parents who actually met when they were attending Tuskegee Institute. So there’s a number of reasons why I think this initiative is so important.

And me being able to join the Silk Protein initiative, you just nominate your friend or someone you want and they get selected, that $10,000 goes a long way, a lot longer than what people think.

It’s amazing how much even a little bit of funding helps, and even just more visibility for it. I saw a story last year that really gave me perspective about how there had never been a five-star athlete officially committing to an HBCU in basketball. It’s such a staggering thing to think about and how far we still have to go to make things a little more equitable.

What’s happening is, well I coach at the University of Houston, we’re technically a Group of Five school, in the American Conference. I hear people all the time talk about ‘You have to go to a Power Five conference, look at all the facilities.’

When I try to talk to people, a couple things I say is it’s not about the conference, it’s about the schools and the coach and the system. So often we’re just caught up in stuff — look at all these great uniforms and equipment and facilities — and what I tell my young people, I say I’m not concerned about the facilities they have, I’m trying to get you to the facilities you can buy. You know? I’m teaching you how to buy your own instead of you being impressed with theirs.

But it’s because we’re told you can’t be successful at that level. The reality is that you can be successful at any level if you have the right system, people that care and if you are given access. No question.

Beyond initiatives like this, what’s something that someone who wants to help fix these inequalities can do or find ways to help make these things better? Where’s the best place to start?

The biggest thing is just clearing your mind and looking at the records and opportunity. Right now we’re starting to get players and athletes thinking about trying an HBCU. I’ve definitely seen interest in track and field and we’re starting to see it in ball players, I know people are looking at these schools.

I think the biggest thing is to open your mind and not think automatically that there’s one way to the NBA or to the NFL or post-collegiate track and field. So just open your mind. And check out these schools, because academically they have a lot of great programs, they’re going to have diversity. Because we automatically think an HBCU is for Black students, no, they have all kinds of diversity in a lot of cases — they just gave access to African-Americans. And your’e going to see that many of the important teachers and other people in this school came from there. So just open your mind to what the possibility is.

You’re known for a lot of things in a lot of different spheres. I just talked to my mom before this and she said ‘Oh, my god. He’s a legend.’ So pressure’s on me here. But I wanted to know with you doing so much and being involved in a lot of areas in your career, what is it you want to be known for at the end of the day? I know a legacy isn’t something you can really control, but what’s something you want people to know about you first and foremost?

I’ll put it in this perspective: When I talk to the athletes that come in, I say, ‘Leave something better than when you came in.’ I was raised in an area where all I saw was my parents in service. They were public school teachers, they ran the track club. So I just saw service. And I hope I can educate people and leave track better.

In track and field, we came in and fought against drugs and wanted to make sure there was professionalism. So we hoped we left it better. Now with college and students and athletes, I want them to leave the program better and be a leader, to get their education and be the best they can be. Enough so that they want to come back, just like I was raised to be.

And so you look at what in some cases is such a small little thing that some of these people need. What if a program needs to go to a track meet but they can’t afford to. And they win this initiative and get the donation. Well all of a sudden they can go to that. And what if someone is there watching, or someone runs that race and gets into the Olympic trials like we had some kids do last weekend? That’s the way I look at it.

That’s great, and I’m going to give you one last opportunity to do that on a very small scale. I desperately want to be someone who likes running, and I have just never figured out a way to get into it and stick with it. What’s a tip you have for someone who wants to start training and just can’t get out of their own way?

Well, I’m not a big runner-runner either. I ride bikes a lot. But what I’d say is to start with a friend and walking. So pick a distance that’s comfortable, start walking and then as you walk together maybe go a week or two, then time it. Keep it the same distance but time it. And then next thing you know, if you have any competitive bone in your body, and it seems like you do, you’re going to want to beat that time. [laughs]

So then that slow walk becomes a fast walk, becomes a jog and then you’ll say ‘well that was easy. That’s not long enough.’ And then next thing you know you’re joining a running club. But do it at a pace that, it may take a year until you join a running club but you start by maybe walking a mile. Then you say ‘this isn’t long enough’ and then you go to two miles or three miles. So that’s what I’d say. Get a partner that’s going to inspire you and start walking.