By Mike Goodson/Sports Correspondent
Over the years many individuals have emerged from Gadsden and Etowah County to make their mark on the world of sports. These local athletes excelled in their chosen fields and going on to glory in the college and professional ranks.
The Etowah County Sports Hall of Fame is an organization that was founded to archive the achievements of these local sports legends and their heroics on the many venues of the sports world. Occasionally an individual is overlooked, however, and the passing years seem to diminish the accomplishments of some of these great athletes. One such athlete was a young girl who learned her sport at Gadsden’s Carver High School.
Born on Oct. 18, 1929, Evelyn Lawler competed for the United States in the 80-meter hurdles at the 1951 Pan American Games, finishing sixth. She is perhaps better known as the mother of multiple Olympic track & field gold medalist Carl Lewis and Olympian, World Championship bronze medalist and sports announcer Carol Lewis.
Lawler graduated from Tuskegee University and at one point in time held the U.S. record in the 80-meter hurdles. Lawler started in the sport as a sophomore at Carver High School when her school picked six or seven girls for a start up track team. Lawler was not selected but watched the team practice. When it came time to compete, Lawler asked if she could try out. She beat all the other girls on the team. When Carver competed at a meet at Tuskegee, the team’s coach, Major Cleveland L. Abbott, invited her to come to the university.
Lawler started hurdling when the previous hurdlers – including 1948 Olympian Theresa Manuel – had graduated. Abbott told Lawler she was the team’s next hurdler. Her trip to the Pan Am games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was her first time out of the country and the first time on a plane. Lawler had risen to be one of the best three hurdlers in the world by 1952, but injuries prevented her from qualifying for the Olympic games. She continued to participate in Masters athletics but eventually retired from the sport because she kept getting injured.
Lawler’s son Carl Lewis was born in Birmingham, though he was actually raised in Willingboro, N.J. With nine Olympic gold medals, 10 Olympic overall medals and eight gold medals at the World Championships, Lewis is considered by many to be the greatest track and field athlete of all time. His Olympic gold medals came in 1984 (100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, 4×100 meters relay, long jump), 1988 (100-meter dash, long jump), 1992 (4×100 meters relay, long jump) and 1996 (long jump). His four victories in 1984 matched the record set by Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic games. In 1996 in Atlanta, Lewis ended his Olympic career by equaling Al Oerter’s record of winning the same Olympic event four times consecutively, with Lewis’s feat occurring in the long jump.
Lewis twice set individual world records at 100-meters (1988, 1991), although his 1988 world record came at the Seoul Olympics when he initially finished second behind Ben Johnson’s presumed world record. Johnson was disqualified for doping the next day. In relay events, Lewis was a member of teams that posted world records at 4×100 meters six times and 4×200 meters three times.
Although almost universally considered the greatest long jumper ever, Lewis never set a world record in that event. In addition to his 1991 World Championships personal best, Lewis was denied that record in 1982 when he won the USOC National Sports Festival. Lewis had a jump estimated by most knowledgeable observers to be beyond 30 feet, but it was controversially ruled a foul, although no mark was found on the plasticine beyond the take-off mark.
Lawler’s daughter and Lewis’ sister, Carol LeGrant, was born on Aug. 8, 1963. She is a former track and field athlete who specialized in the long jump. Born in Birmingham, she first came to prominence as a high school athlete while at Willingboro High School in New Jersey, setting the indoor long jump record at 21’ 7.5” (6.59 meters) in 1981. She later went to the University of Houston, where she had followed her older brother Carl. White at Houston, she won two National Collegiate Athletic Association long jump championship titles in 1983.