In September 1923, James enrolls at Bolton Elementary School. He finds that it is a far cry from the one-room schoolhouse back home in Oakville, Alabama. The teachers are strict and businesslike. When his teacher asks for JC’s name, she misunderstands his Southern drawl and writes down Jesse. Afraid to interrupt on the first day of class, JC becomes Jesse, a name that will stick with him for the rest of his life.
Jesse enrolls at Fairmount Junior High School in September 1927. Here Jesse meets two people who will forever change his life. Jesse recalls, “She was unusual because even though I knew her family was as poor as ours, nothing she said or did seemed touched by that. It was as if she had something inside her that somehow made all that not count.” The little girl is Minnie Ruth Solomon, who will become Ruth Owens, Jesse’s wife. This happens on July 5th, 1930, when Dave Albritton, a friend and teammate of Jesse’s, drives Ruth and Jesse from town to town in Pennsylvania until they find a justice of the peace who will marry such a young couple.
In 1927 Jesse also meets a short, skinny man with a whistle around his neck, named Coach Riley. It is Riley who starts the transformation of Jesse from a sickly kid into an Olympic champion. With a year’s worth of training, Jesse flies past Riley at the 100-yard mark in 11 seconds. Unbelievably fast for a 15 year old, it is time to suit Jesse up for the track team. In his first year, Owens breaks the world record for junior high in the high jump and long jump. In May 1931, Jesse leads his team to the state championship, then again in May 1932, where Jesse equals or breaks records in the long jump, the 100 and 200 yard sprints and the relay event.
Jesse does have a setback. In June 1932, he loses to Ralph Metcalfe of Marquette University in the US Olympic Trials at Northwestern University. But, in May 1933, at his third and final state championship, Jesse breaks the world record for high school students in the long jump, sailing 24′ 3 1/6″, a state record that stood for 44 years.
At the National Interscholastic Meet in Chicago, Jesse surpasses his own standards finishing the 100 yard dash in 9.4 seconds tying the world record the 220 yard dash in 20.7 seconds breaking the world record, and beating his best jump by 6 inches.