Jesse Owens was born James Cleveland Owens on Sept. 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama, as the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves. Although he grew up to become a record-breaking track star, Owns battled respiratory problems throughout his youth.
In high school, Owens set records in the 100- and 200-yard dashes as well as the long jump, earning him a scholarship to Ohio State University, where he was nicknamed "The Buckeye Bullet." In college, Owens tied the world record for the 100-yard dash and set records in the long jump, 220-yard dash, and 220-yard low hurdles. His long jump record of 26 feet 8 inches stood for 25 years. In 1935, Owens competed in 42 total events between the NCAA Championships, AAU Championships and Olympic trials, and he won all 42. In the 1936 Olympics, Owens won four gold medals for the United States (the 100-meter dash, the long jump, the 200-meter dash and the 400-meter relay) in front of Adolf Hitler, who stormed out of the stadium after Owens won the 100-meter dash. Rumor has it that Hitler later congratulated Owens. When Owens returned to the USA, his accomplishments weren't publicly recognized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Owens played for the Harlem Globetrotters for a time. He was known to have smoked a pack of cigarettes per day for much of his life.