Gold Standard

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: April 2014
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One of the world’s greatest athletes liked breaking a sweat at the Downtown YMCA. Jesse Owens, the track and field legend who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, worked out at the YMCA after moving to Phoenix in 1972. Ironically, Owens’ exercise regimen did not include his forte. “I don’t jog,” Owens told the New York Times, “because I can’t run flat-footed. And at 60 years old, you’re crazy to be out there running.”

To keep fit, Owens did six minutes of calisthenics, two miles on a stationary bike, 40 push-ups and pull-ups, skipped rope for five minutes, punched the bag for four minutes, rowed 100 strokes, and then finished up with the steam room, sauna and a massage. “A workout like that makes it a sunshine day and makes me happy to have lived this long,” Owens said in an Arizona Republic interview in 1973.

“Owens was a low-key guy; some members didn’t even realize who he was,” recalls Doug Dunipace, who served as the YMCA’s legal counsel. “My son and I talked with Jesse once in the steam room and he couldn’t have been more gracious. Owens said he had been enjoying high-calorie food on a recent speaking tour and was hoping to sweat off a few pounds.” Owens liked Arizona and Arizona liked him back, celebrating “Jesse Owens Day” in 1976. A pack-a-day smoker, Owens died of lung cancer on March 31, 1980, at age 66. Governor Bruce Babbitt declared a day of mourning and Owens’ body lied in state at the Arizona Capitol before his burial in Chicago.