On a September night in 1991, in a Tokyo stadium, in a world-championship long jump competition against the greatest track and field athlete of the past half-century, Mike Powell floated beyond the bounds of his sport.
He leaped 29 feet, 4 1/2 inches.
He erased a 23-year-old world record of 29-2 1/2 established by Bob Beamon in the high altitude of Mexico City at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
He beat Carl Lewis.
Ten months later, Powell is a millionaire, a worldwide star who commands $50,000 for merely appearing at a meet, a celebrity who can no longer walk unnoticed down a city street or jump unbothered into a pit of sand.
As the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, approach, Powell finds himself at the center of a global event.
But the greatest long jumper has no fear.
"I'm a daredevil," he said. "People ask me if 30 feet is my ultimate goal. I say, 'No.' It will take 30 feet to win Barcelona. Both Carl and I can do that. I take that as inevitable. We're beyond where we were before. The new standard is 31 feet."
As rash as the statement sounds, it symbolizes what one momentous jump can do for an athlete's confidence and his life. At 28, after years of defeat and doubt, Powell views himself as virtually unbeatable.
And why not?
Standards created to last
In the long jump, the standards are created to last. Before Powell, only four men held the record in 56 years.
Jesse Owens jumped 26-8 1/4 in 1935. And it wasn't until 25 years later that Ralph Boston of the United States and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan of the Soviet Union traded the record over eight seasons, extending it to 27-4 3/4 . Finally, Beamon and Mexico City combined on one startling day to produce apparent perfection.
But those were marks established in a different era. Owens never turned fame into fortune. Boston and Ter-Ovanesyan were not courted by agents or shoe companies. And Beamon receded into the shadows after his great jump.
Powell is of a different era, when the wall between amateurism and professionalism is breached, when athletes can command millions in endorsements.
As he walked off the field in Tokyo, passing through an electrical storm of photographers' flashes, his life was transformed.
The endorsements rolled in. Foot Locker. Nike. Ray-Ban. He hit the banquet circuit. He did the morning television shows, and later trained and performed under the glare of publicity.
"That one performance represented the biggest metamorphosis of awareness and perception to one athlete," said Powell's agent, Brad Hunt. "One jump, and it was on the front page of every newspaper in the world. Afterward, I joked that we would need two Mike Powells. One to shake hands. The other to train. Well, we have those two. Mike has not changed."
If anything, Powell has grown even more comfortable recently with his status as the dominant star of American track and field. He enjoys the wealth his fame has provided, living in a suburban Los Angeles home complete with a recently built pool and a garage stuffed full of weight training equipment.
His optimism is matched only by his improving health from a hamstring injury, and the numbers he has placed on scoreboards. Although he has appeared in only two meets and taken 10 jumps this year -- including a wind-aided 29-2 1/2 in Modesto, Calif., in May -- his path appears paved with gold. He vows to establish another world record jumping in high altitude at a meet Tuesday in Sestriere, Italy.
'Remain the same person'
"I have told myself to remain the same person," Powell said. "Getting attention can be fun. I like it when people come up to me and tell me, 'Good luck.' It makes me realize the record is important to a lot of people. But I also have to remain focused.
"I'll be fine as long as I remember what I'm doing. I'm running and jumping in dirt."
Before Tokyo, he was known as "Mike Foul," a gifted leaper who had not yet mastered the mechanics of a deceptively difficult event. There is more to long jumping than simply running at full speed and landing feetfirst in a pit.
"It's like being dropped off a truck at 25 mph and dumped into sand," Powell said. "You have to know what you're doing.
"I tell people that the jump is only part of it. You're running as fast as you can so you can take off in a nine-inch area and then you're hurtling through the air, using a hitch kick, so you can land in sand. It's not water. It's earth. It hurts. There is so much to this event that I'm still learning."
The physical skills Powell takes into the event are impressive. He is 6 feet 2 and weighs 170 pounds and has the speed of a top 200-meter man. But it's his spidery legs and 35-inch inseam that provide the springs to a record.
Born in Philadelphia, Powell moved to California when he was 11. Thin, to the point of being frail, Powell was the kid who would challenge the biggest player in a game of pickup tackle football.
"It hurt for a minute," he said. "But I did it."