Passing a legend
Gray once studied about Owens, now owns one of his old records
In the moments before sprinter Nick Gray eclipsed Jesse Owens’ long-held Ohio State record in the 100 meters this month, he felt frantic.
Gray stumbled out of the blocks in his race at the Gamecock Invitational on April 13 in Columbia, South Carolina, instantly trailing fellow senior Demek Kemp from South Carolina State.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap,’ ” Gray said.
For the rest of the way, he sought to recover. The slow start spurred him on.
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Gray couldn't pass Kemp and ended up in second place, but he did overtake Owens, the Buckeye Bullet. Gray was clocked at 10.17 seconds, edging the 10.2 record set by Owens in 1936.
It wasn't the only school record Gray broke that day. He also broke Chris Nelloms' 26-year-old mark of 20.23 in the 200 with a time of 20.20.
This weekend, Gray will run at the Jesse Owens Relays at Ohio State in his first meet since his record-setting afternoon. He plans to run the 100, as well as the 400 and 1,600 relays, on Saturday.
His last 100 race left him in some anguish, at least temporarily. Gray recalled feeling “horrible” as he strode down his lane. He was stunned when he saw his record time.
“It felt like that?” he said.
But lingering memories of the finish and his place in history evoke a smile now. Gray, a Pickerington native, has admired Owens since he began running track as a fifth grader. He wrote research papers in middle school and high school about Owens, the black sprinter who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and struck a blow against Adolf Hitler's plan to use the Games as a showcase for Aryan athletic supremacy.
“It’s impossible not to know his importance to the track and field world,” Gray said.
The day after he broke Owens’ record, Gray found a photoshopped photo on the website FloTrack. It shows him shaking the hand of Owens, who died in 1980 at age 66. He soon had the photograph printed, and with a frame purchase by his girlfriend, had it hanging on his bedroom wall.
Gray is not content to stand at 10.17 in the 100. He said he must lower his time because he believes sophomore teammate Eric Harrison Jr. is likely to best his mark at some point. He raised both index fingers to show that the two sprinters are neck-and-neck.
It is a running joke between them. Gray reminds Harrison he was first to beat Owens’ time.
“Although he’ll probably get it, I can tell my kids I’m the one who actually broke Jesse’s record,” Gray said. “I will hold onto that forever.”
Gray never plotted much of a running career during his childhood. He focused on basketball, enamored with a sport he played on neighborhood courts with family and friends. They played for hours. Basketball captured the middle schooler’s attention.
“In track, it’s one race,” Gray said. “In basketball, there’s play after play after play after play.”
But Gray never made the basketball team at any level at Pickerington North, leading him to put a greater focus into running. His times were fast enough to draw interest from top college programs.
During his career at Ohio State, he has relished the competitive elements of track, becoming an eight-time Big Ten champion and setting school records. He hopes to lower his mark in the 200 under 20 seconds before he graduates this spring.
“In basketball, football or whatever, you can kind of hide between your team,” Gray said. “But in track, times talk. I like that you are in charge of the times that you run. I love that. If I beat you, it’s because I ran faster.”
Gray’s times can say plenty.