As best as he can remember it, Lewis was no more than 11 years old at the time when Owens stopped by to talk to the participants at a local track event in New Jersey. Owens gave a motivational speech and singled out Lewis at the time, despite being smaller than all the kids around him. There was nothing exemplary about him, but Owens still pointed at Lewis and, looking him in the eye, gave him a challenge.
"I was a little kid, I was a late bloomer and Jesse said 'You're a little kid, but you can beat the big guys if you work hard.' It was a simple message but effective," Lewis told Yahoo! Sports in an exclusive interview.
"I never forgot that time and it was kind of a bizarre situation because you look at this and say 'You have got to be kidding me. I met Jesse when I was a kid' and growing up, watching the Olympics and loving it and wanting to go. And here I am later, being there in '84 and going there and trying to emulate someone I admire so much."
The hype around Lewis in 1984 was surreal as he attempted to match Owens' record of four gold medals in a single Olympiad. It was a record that had stood 48 years since Owens had won the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the 4x100-meter relay and the long jump in Berlin. There was Lewis, ready to take to the track in Los Angeles to equal the man who had given him so much belief when he was an adolescent.
It was a pressure that to this day Lewis called "surreal" and "heavy." He cites a strong support network in helping him cope with the chatter of his Olympic quest.
"I tell you, it was kind of two-fold. I fortunately had a lot of support. My coach was amazing — he told me to focus on being prepared and that is what I did. Every athlete is nervous — any athlete who tells you they're not nervous isn't telling you the truth. I was as prepared as I could be," Lewis said. "We also stayed in a home every day, my mother cooked for me. I was in the best situation I could be, I trained for it a long time. I knew once I got there, I'd be ready."
[ Photos: U.S. Sprinter Tyson Gay ]
Ready he was, and Lewis went on to take the gold in the same four events that Owens did in 1936 to tie the American record. He uses the term "bittersweet" to talk about the emotions of doing so, reaching the same standard as his track and field role model. Fame would come and Lewis would continue to excel on the world stage.
He would get 10 medals — nine gold and one silver — in a career that spanned four Olympics. He became the most recognizable athlete of his generation, even being taken in the NBA and NFL drafts in 1984 though he never played at the college level in either sport.
But now Lewis is retired and, much like he did in 1984 when he won four gold medals, is looking to emulate Owens again. For the past six years Lewis has been involved in the Hershey's Track & Field Games, where young people across the country compete for a trip to central Pennsylvania to participate on the national stage.
There are sprint and distance races and even a softball throw instead of the shot put. Lewis attends the finals in Hershey and speaks to the participants who he hopes will be touched in the same way Owens inspired him. They come to him now, some heading off to college to compete in track and field, and others in the workforce or getting their degrees.
"It is similar to the type of events I grew up competing in when I was a kid. What's great about it is that it really is a family event that focuses on running, jumping and throwing," Lewis said.
"We ask families to get involved in [the event] and the finals — it is the best thing in the world — kids run across the country and the finals are in Hershey. They get to see the factory and the business part of it. It's been great for me to be a part of it."
"I look forward to doing this for many more years."