The son of Henry and Emma Owens, James Cleveland Owens was born on September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama. At the age of 9, Owens moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio where he attended elementary school.
A teacher, unable to understand Owens' thick southern accent, recorded his name as "Jesse" when he said "J.C." It became the name he would use for the rest of his life.
Owens' dash to the Olympics began with numerous track and field records in junior high and high school. A talented track star, Owens chose The Ohio State University without scholarship, at a time when OSU was segregated. He supported himself by working many jobs, including one in the University Libraries, all while studying and training in track and field.
In 1935, at the Big Ten Championship, the "Buckeye Bullet", as he was also known, tied a world record for the 100-yard dash and set a long jump record that would stand for a quarter of a century. The pinnacle of his sports career came at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he was the first to win four gold medals in one set of events in Olympic track history, frustrating Adolf Hitler's attempt to showcase Aryan superiority.
After his return, Owens found work as a playground director in Cleveland, beginning his life's work with underprivileged youth. Owens was honored by many U.S. presidents in his lifetime, most notably in 1976 when President Ford presented him with the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the country can bestow on a civilian.