James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was born September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, the youngest of 10 children. J.C., as he was called, was nine years old when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio for better opportunities. When his new teacher asked his name he said “J.C.”, but because of his strong Southern accent, she thought he said “Jesse”. The name took, and he was known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life. As a boy and youth, Owens took different jobs in his spare time: he delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked in a shoe repair shop while his father and older brother worked at a steel mill. During this period, Owens realized that he had a passion for running.
Throughout his life Owens attributed the success of his athletic career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior high track coach at Fairmount Junior High School. Since Owens worked in a shoe repair shop after school, Riley allowed him to practice before school instead.
Owens participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where he achieved international fame by winning four gold medals: one each in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and as part of the 4×100 meter relay team. He was the most successful athlete at the 1936 Summer Olympics. The Jesse Owens Award, USA Track and Field’s highest accolade for the year’s best track and field athlete, is named after him, in honor of his significant career.