NEW YORK -- Track and field greats of the past, present and future gathered on Thursday at New York City’s Armory for USA Track & Field’s third annual Black Tie & Sneakers Gala, where tuxes and designer gowns pair with the most elaborate creations Nike and other manufacturers have to offer.
This year’s gala honored nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, considered by many the greatest Olympian of the 20th century, with the Legend Award.
“It’s been 20 years since I retired, so things like this don’t happen much anymore,” Lewis said in accepting the award. “Generally, I’m here clapping for somebody else.”
He went on to thank his parents, William and Evelyn; his sister Carol, a former world medalist in the long jump, who was present; and his coach, Tom Tellez of the University of Houston.
“It was an amazing, long career for 18 years (1979-1996), with one coach and one track club (Santa Monica),” Lewis said.
Lewis’ achievements are legion. At the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984, he won gold in the 100-, 200-, and 4x100-meter races as well as the long jump, matching Jesse Owens’ 1936 feat. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, he won the 100 and long jump, and added silver in the 200. In 1992, he again won the long jump and 4x100; and in 1996, he capped his Olympic career with a fourth consecutive gold medal in the long jump. His world indoor record in the long jump has stood since 1984.
Asked where this latest honored stacked up against others, including his 2001 induction into the USATF National Track & Field Hall of Fame, Lewis laughed.
“It’s just like I say when people ask, ‘What’s your favorite city?’ It’s the one I’m living in now,” he said. “I live in the present. This award is the most interesting to me, at this point in my life. I’m coaching now, something I thought I would never do. I’m happy; it keeps me young.”
In 2014, Lewis became a full-time assistant track and field coach at his alma mater, the University of Houston, as part of a program helmed by his former teammate and training partner, Leroy Burrell. Lewis helped lead the Cougars to the 2017 NCAA title in the 4x100 and a runner-up relay finish in 2016.
“I’m able to guide athletes, help them avoid some of the mistakes I made, steer clear of the pitfalls,” he said.
Prior to the gala, athletes met the press as they walked the red carpet. Some talked about gearing up for the indoor track and field season, while many were still recuperating from the world championships, held in London in August.
Tianna Bartoletta is firmly in the first camp. The three-time Olympic gold medalist won the 4x100 in 2012 and 2016, as well as the long jump in 2016, but finished third in the long jump at this year’s worlds. She has bold goals for the indoor season.
“My immediate plan is to do both the indoor 60 meters and long jump,” Bartoletta, 32, said. “It will be the first time I’ve competed both in the same meets.”
“I still can’t decide if I’m a sprinter who jumps, or a jumper who sprints, and I don’t think I have to decide,” she added. “My hashtag is now #refusetochoose.”
Bartoletta helped present the Legends Award to Lewis, another athlete who thrived both as a sprinter and a jumper.
“He’s a great role model, a great inspiration to have,” she said. “He hasn’t given me any advice, but he’s given me encouragement. It can be done.”
On this evening, Lewis did have some advice for Bartoletta.
“Every long jumper can be a sprinter, not every sprinter can be a long jumper,” he said. “The first thing I would tell her is, take care of your jumping first, after that, you can think about the sprints.”
Lewis then echoed Bartoletta’s words, adding, “It can be done.”
Another 2016 Olympic champion who won a bronze medal in London, shot putter Michelle Carter, is on a different path, taking life a bit easier — for the moment, at least.
“I just bought a house, I’m decorating,” the 32-year-old Texan said. “I’m focusing on getting back into shape for 2018, leading into 2020 (the Olympics). I’m building up to that, taking my time. 2016-17, that was a long year and I’m using the downtime to rest, recover and get healthy.”
One goal stands out: winning the IAAF Continental Cup, to be held in Ostrava, Czech Republic in September 2018.
“I was second (in 2014),” Carter said. “So that’s something I want. But I’m not going to focus so much on distance in 2018; I’m going to focus on training, getting stronger, so I can let it rip in 2020.”
Justin Gatlin, still basking in the afterglow of his 100-meter win at the world championships — where he defeated Jamaica’s Usain Bolt — was unsure of his plans, especially when it came to the 200-meter. He failed to qualify for the 200-meter final at the Rio Games.
“My coach (Dennis Mitchell) wants me to specialize in the 100 meters for the next three years,” the five-time Olympic medalist said. “I want faster times; I want to break the American record (of 9.69 seconds, now held by Tyson Gay). My focus is on running fast, not running a lot of races but maybe running smaller races.”
One thing the 35-year-old Gatlin isn’t considering: retirement.
“I started my career with an Olympic gold medal (in 2004), I’d love to finish my career with a gold medal in 2020,” he said.
Lewis, who held the title of “world’s fastest man” many times in his career, endorses Gatlin for that honor, although Bolt still holds the 100-meter world record (9.58 seconds).
“The one who won it last is the fastest, and that’s Justin,” he said. “You can’t go back to two times ago.”
Four athletes — sprinter Leroy Burrell, decathlete Bryan Clay, hurdler Patty Van Wolvelaere, and sprinter Lindy Remigino — were inducted into the Hall of Fame, as was three-time NCAA Coach of the Year Bill Squires. The late Dr. Norbert Sander, winner of the 1974 New York City Marathon and a founder of the Armory, was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with a bib number, received the Pioneer Award.
Allyson Felix, a six-time Olympic gold medalist, whose three medals this summer in London made her the most decorated track and field athlete in world championship history, was surprised with a video highlighting her career, along with the Trailblazer Award.
“It’s amazing, because I felt I didn’t reach all of my goals,” said Felix, alluding to her silver medal in the 400-meter at the Rio Games. “It’s always disappointing to work so hard and to come up short. But getting to watch the film of my accomplishments, and to walk away from the world championships with that honor, was really special to me.”