Growing up in West Covina, Mike Powell preferred shooting baskets to practicing for the long jump.
Although he played basketball and participated in track and field while attending Edgewood High, Powell spent most of his time on the courts.
“Many times I would have to run down from the track and take Mike away from a basketball game,” said Doug Agatep, Powell’s track coach at Edgewood. “His first love was definitely basketball. But he also found a love in the jumping events, and when he set his mind to it he worked harder at them than anyone I’ve ever coached.”
Agatep has followed Powell’s track career closely, so he was not surprised when he heard that Powell had set a long jump record of 29 feet 4 1/2 Friday at the World Championships in Tokyo.
“I was driving to work and I heard over the radio that Mike set the record,” Agatep said. “I just raised my fists in the air, and I almost caused three car accidents. I was just so excited. I feel privileged to have been associated with such a great person.”
Powell and his family moved from Philadelphia to Southern California on Aug. 30, 1974, 17 years to the day that Mike set the record. Powell’s mother, Carolyn Carroll, said her son had been a quiet, shy boy until the move. Once settled in West Covina, she said he became very active.
A freshman at Edgewood, which closed in 1988, Powell took an immediate liking to basketball but seemed lost on the track.
“He was this small, scrawny kid who didn’t know which event to go out for,” Agatep said. “One day, a guy on our team yelled over to me that some freshman had just gone 6 feet in the high jump. I thought that was pretty good for someone that age, so I went over to find out more about the kid. It turned out to be Mike Powell, and I never forgot his name after that.”
Powell, the youngest of three children, had his brightest moments during his senior season in 1980-81. He was captain of the basketball team and led the school into the playoffs.
He also was captain of the track team, excelling in the high jump, long jump and triple jump. At the State meet at Cerritos College, he placed second in the high jump (7 feet) and seventh in the long jump (23-3 3/4).
He received a track scholarship to UC Irvine and competed for the Anteaters for three years. Looking for a bigger program, he transferred to UCLA in 1985. He redshirted his first year there.
“Mike felt at Irvine that he was a big fish in a little pond,” said Steve Lang, UCLA’s jumping coach since 1984. “He wanted to go someplace where he wasn’t such a big fish. He said he always felt at home at UCLA.”
Powell won the long jump at the Pacific 10 Conference championships in 1986 with a mark of 26-5. He then injured his leg playing tennis and missed the NCAA meet.
“The thing that makes Mike so talented in the long jump is that he has the ability to jump so high,” said Lang, who also coaches cross country at Fremont High. “He can get up higher than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Since winning the silver medal in the long jump at the 1988 Olympics, Powell has been training with friend Craig Stewart. The two met while competing against each other in high school. Steward attended West Covina High.
“We jumped against each other dozens of times in high school,” Stewart said, “and Mike only beat me once. But he always believed then that he was unbeatable. He hasn’t lost that attitude.”
Powell has discussed breaking the world record frequently with his girlfriend, Karen Koellner, who ran track at USC from 1985-89.
“When I met Mike three years ago, he had a five-year plan for what he wanted to accomplish in the long jump,” Koellner said. “Each year, he’s accomplished his goals. This year, his top priority was to beat Carl Lewis and to break the world record.
“When he called me after he did it this morning, words alone could not describe the emotion he was feeling,” she said. “It was better than he expected. He was overwhelmed. This is something he believed he could do but could not believe it finally happened.”