For Lewis, finish line is where he took off
Carl Lewis isn’t from Houston, but UH has never been anything less than home.
The nine-time Olympic gold medalist joined head coach Leroy Burrell as a volunteer coach on Thursday. Lewis will work with the sprinters and jumpers.
“Carl is … the greatest athlete of all time. For Carl to approach me back almost a year ago and tell me, ‘Hey, I’m moving back to Houston; I want to get involved with the program,’ it was an opportunity of a lifetime for me as a coach and I think even more of a special opportunity for our athletes,” Burrell said.
“We’re just really excited … not only that he’s here, but also (about) the focus that he brings to our program and to the sport in general here in Houston.”
Burrell and Lewis have history together — during their collegiate careers at UH and beyond.
Both were coached and mentored under the direction of legendary coach Tom Tellez — who now serves as the associate track and field coach — and were members of the 1992 United States relay team during the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Lewis said he has enjoyed the direction Burrell has taken the program in.
“One of the most interesting things happened when I came back. I saw Leroy, and I was like, ‘Gosh, that’s Leroy. He’s running the program like a general.’ And I was so proud of him. He’s like my little brother,” Lewis said.
“It’s like seeing your little brother really go off and become successful and take it to his next level. And just to be a part of that and lend my helping hand is just an honor.”
After Lewis retired following the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he said he never thought he would end up coaching. Instead, he volunteered in youth track programs to help aspiring athletes.
“One of the greatest days of my career was when I retired here on this campus. And I say that is because I retired on my own terms, and not one second (have I) wanted to go back,” Lewis said. “Not because it was tough, but because I was ready. So I can get the same joy out of watching these kids improve.”
At UH alone, Lewis’s achievements reign throughout the campus. In the Athletics/Alumni Center, past a room filled with his awards is the Carl Lewis Auditorium — named in honor of his successful career, which includes 10 World Championship medals and six national collegiate titles at UH, in addition to the Carl Lewis International Complex.
His official position on the team comes as no surprise to the veteran athletes who have watched him return to see their performance every year in the Carl Lewis Indoor Track Meets and know him as “Uncle Carl.”
The freshmen, on the other hand, have had no experience with him, which Lewis doesn’t see as an issue while coaching. He’s taken a fresh approach to his new title and wants to get to know the players’ personalities, how they move on the track, what they can improve on and what he can do to help.
“I asked Leroy, ‘How can I help the program?’ And he kind of laid out a great foundation for me to implement and what I can do to help, because I’m not really here to try to go up a tree. This is as high as I will ever get as a coach,” Lewis said. “I guarantee you, I will not go to another school; it’s not happening. I just want to help the University of Houston be the best that they can be.”
For the upcoming season, Lewis believes his presence will serve a greater purpose as he follows Burrell’s plans to compete on a worldwide level. Lewis said his goal is to see his fellow Cougars go beyond winning conference titles: to win NCAA championships and compete in the Olympics, like senior sprinter Errol Nolan.
“I have a long, wonderful relationship with this community, with this University. I often tell people, if I didn’t go here, you wouldn’t know me,” Lewis said.
“I feel that strongly about it, and I think that it’s the right time, it’s a great time. … It’s such an exciting time to be a part of Houston that I’m just happy to be back here and hope that I can add something dynamic to the program that just helps it go where he (Burrell) wants it to go.”