Remembering Jesse Owens

Clockwise from top: In 1935, Jesse Owens tied or broke four world records at Ohio State and married his childhood sweetheart, Ruth Solomon. In 1936, he won four gold medals at the Olympics in Nazi Germany.

record that stood for nearly 50 years.

It was in athletics that Owens found freedom — from race and segregation, politics and propaganda. As he said of his record-breaking long jump, 26 feet in a single bound, "I decided . . . I was going to fl y. I was going to stay up in the air." And it was in his family that he found the love and support he needed when he came back down to earth.


In Chicago, the city where Owens raised his family, Parade magazine had the rare opportunity to talk with his daughters and the actor who portrays him in the film, Stephan James. It is a stunning coincidence that we are meeting at the Waldorf Astoria, the same hotel that forced Owens to take the freight elevator after his Olympic win, when he was invited to a dinner in his honor. Beverly Owens Prather, 74, his youngest daughter, says, "I got on the elevator today and thought, Well, we're at the Waldorf. But we're not on the freight elevator anymore."

Beverly and sisters Gloria Owens Hemphill, 84 (she was a toddler when her father competed in the Olympics), and Marlene Owens Rankin, 77, agree that Race is a fitting tribute to their father, who died in 1980. "I'm very happy about it because I hope that young people see that you don't have to have everything to want to be somebody," says Gloria. "You can find more people that want to help you than you think."

The daughters first met James, the young man who would play their father, on the film's set in Berlin. Race was shot in the same stadium where Owens competed. "It literally gave me chills, walking up to the stadium," says James, 22. "It's on a street that's called Jesse Owens Alley. I felt like I was almost walking in his footsteps. I stood where he stood and thought of how he was probably feeling so alone in a place that's so big, so massive. It was one of those moments where I felt like I was channeling him."

Learning how to run like the fastest man in the world was no easy feat. Owens had a distinctive stride. "I was out in Atlanta shooting Selma, and on every day off that I had I would go to Georgia Tech and train with their track team to play Jesse," he says. "Coach Nat Page is a Jesse fanatic so he was able to really nitpick at different things and help me get to where I needed to be."


One of the most powerful elements of the film is the relationship between Owens and his coach at Ohio State, Larry Snyder, who is played by Jason Sudeikis. It was an unusual friendship for that time and place. Snyder was white and affuent. Owens was black and poor. But Snyder was also a young coach and a former Olympic hopeful himself. He and Owens developed a friendship that not only shaped sports history but lasted decades.

Gloria remembers that Snyder was a bright, boisterous presence in their home. "Larry was part of the family," she says. "He made it feel like you were the only person in the world that mattered," Marlene says.

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