28 JAN 1999 General News

A day in the life of Carl Lewis

A Day in the Life of Carl Lewis

With nine Olympic gold medals and four gold, one silver and one bronze medal from the World Championships, Carl Lewis, "King Carl", who also broke no fewer than seven world records during his athletics career, is a legendary figure. Since his retirement from competition in 1997, he has started a new career as a businessman, launching two apparel lines and preparing to open his first restaurant. He shares with us a special day: the launch of his first autumn/winter sports clothing collection in Florence’s renowned Pitti Uomo fashion fair.

This is a little more than a day in my life: rather more like two days, but as you will see, everything sort of spilled over and I was caught out by the time differences anyway!

I flew into Florence on 14 January. I came straight from New York, where I had been attending the ESPN launch of their 100 athletes of the Century promotion. They are going to announce an athlete each week in the lead-up to the end of this century and the start of the new millennium and I was among those honoured to be included in the top 50.

At noon, local time, I arrived at my hotel, the Villa Medici. It is just yards away from the Lungarno, the road that runs alongside the Arno River in the centre of Florence and a few minutes walk away from the world famous Ponte Vecchio. It was five in the morning by my watch, which was still on Houston time and I had time to grab a couple of hours sleep before the first engagement of the day and, hopefully, escape the worst of the jetlag.

When I’m at home, I am normally a fairly early riser. I have two dogs, Ramses a Rhodesian Ridgeback and Moses a Dalmatian and they have to be fed before eight in the morning, otherwise Ramses starts to get grumpy. Once that chore is over with I can get on with the rest of the day, which generally involves a run in the woods surrounding my home in Houston, followed by a light breakfast of grapefruit juice (a lot of it!) and some raw fruit. My dad was the only one in the family who ever drank coffee and I never acquired a taste for it, or even for normal tea come to that. If I feel like a hot drink I will make a mug of herbal tea.

Back to Florence. It was five in the afternoon when I left the hotel and headed over to the Pitti Palace and the Pitti Uomo fashion show. David Greifinger, my lawyer and Magnus Ullman, President of Santa Monica Europe AB (the Swedish incorporated company we set up to handle the Santa Monica Track Club sports clothing line and the Carl Lewis line of fashion clothing) came with me. We had a stand in the fair to present the first fall collection of SMTC in the sports section of Pitti Uomo, which is a major international fashion show.

First item on the agenda was the presentation of the Roberto Cavalli fall collection. Cavalli is a well known Florentine designer and he was showing his interpretation of the trends for next autumn – although I felt that some of the styles may well not appear on the man in the street until some time in the next millennium. When Roberto heard that I would be in town to present the SMTC line, he invited me to attend his show, which I was glad to do as he has some really innovative ideas. Nearly 500 guests were at the show, with editors from the major fashion magazines and Italian TV networks.

I didn’t stay long after the show, as the SMTC team organising our stand had arranged for us to have dinner together in a very special Florentine restaurant: "Garga".

I was a little apprehensive, as I keep myself on a pretty strict diet and had just completed a couple of weeks of "purifying" diet after a few excesses over the holidays. Just like everyone else, we had had our round of parties and it is difficult not to let the occasional extra titbit slip between your teeth when you have a lot of tasty food around you and everyone is letting their hair down. Fortunately, I never really drink more than an occasional glass of wine or champagne and so hadn’t suffered too much when we played our traditional annual game of football on New Year’s Day – unlike some of the guys who had been at my house for the New Year’s party. It is supposed to be a pretty easy game, with no real tackling, but people tend to get a carried away once the game starts and it generally becomes a real rough and tumble. This year was no exception and a few of the players were really hurting by the time the game finished.

Anyway, Garga it was, for a taste of traditional Florentine cooking. We had the first surprise when we got to the restaurant and they turned us away! Well, rather, they sent us across the street. This didn’t look to be a good start, but the restaurant’s owner Giuliano then received us at a door across the narrow street. He took us inside to a room decorated from floor to ceiling with murals, where a log fire was blazing in the hearth and opera music was pouring from the stereo system. This, he explained, was his cookery school, run by his wife and it was the first time he had opened it to the public and this was in my honour. They had even gone to the trouble to make up a special menu of some of the great Florentine classic dishes and printed it on parchment for our party, with a dedication to me. Best of all, when Giuliano’s wife learned that I was vegetarian, she concocted a new dish with Italian radicchio leaves and gorgonzola cheese, in place of the famous "Fiorentina" rib of beef, which was served to the rest of the party. I even ate the dessert –something I never normally touch – an apple pudding served with warm "zabaione", which was fabulous.

Dinner was over by midnight, but the evening was not! At the time I would normally be starting my daily workout in the weights room in my home in Houston, we were heading back to catch the tail end of Roberto Cavalli’s party. A lot of the top fashion press were still there and we stayed for half an hour and made some appointments for our own press conference the next morning. At one o’clock I was happy to fall into bed at the hotel and get some sleep.

After a good night’s rest, I got up, had a light breakfast and prepared to head back to the Pitti for a full day of interviews and presentations.

The first stop was a brief interview with TG1, the daily news programme of the main Italian television channel, followed by our scheduled press conference, which was jam-packed with journalists and two or three TV crews. I had to explain to the people there that this was not just an endorsement situation for me. I really put the same commitment into everything I do in business as I did into track. I am vice-chairman of SME AB and a shareholder and give a lot of input in the design and development stages. I always had a great interest in design and used to design a lot of my own track kit and also that of the Santa Monica Track Club.

This is also true for the restaurant I am developing with a couple of partners in Houston. It is due to open next month (February) and will be called "Café Noir". Here too, I want us to achieve excellence. I really expect everyone to do all that they can to make it a success, just as I do. When I was competing, I didn’t go out to set records, I went onto the track determined to win, having done everything I could to make sure that I was in the best physical and mental shape to achieve this and the same applies to my business endeavours.

After the press conference, where we presented the first SMTC fall collection to the media, we took a quick lunch in the fair and then it was time for me to sign photos for a bunch of fans who had turned up at the fair and I was interviewed, once again, by Italian television.

I was wearing some of the items from our sports collection when I was at Pitti, but had to go back to the hotel to change for a reception at the Palazzo Vecchio, where the Mayor of Florence, Mario Primicerio, was to present me the Seal of the City.

During the presentation, which was attended by several leading figures from the Italian sports world, including some past Olympic medallists, the Mayor remembered my first visit to Florence, back in 1981. This was truly a memorable occasion for me too. It was 10 June 1981 and the day when Sebastian Coe set a new record for the 800m and I set a new record for the 100m… for about half an hour! What had happened was that there was a problem with the timing, which had showed 9.94 and when the corrected time came up it was actually 10.13. Still, it was the first time that I really made a world-class performance and will always be for me the start of my career in athletics.

Now I was in Florence starting my second career. Or better still, pursuing it, as this was the launch of our second collection – and the first really major launch.

This had not escaped the attention of Mayor Primicerio, who said that Florence had obviously augured well for my career in sport and asked me to reciprocate by returning to open the new athletics stadium in Florence, which they plan to have ready in the year 2000.

After the presentation, the City hosted a reception for me in the splendid 15th century hall of the Palazzo. This is the largest hall of its type in the world, from that period and is stunning. The room must be 200 feet long and the unsupported ceiling is painted with some fabulous historical scenes, with some fabulous sculptures lined up around the walls. It is a must if you are ever in Florence and have a chance to visit.

I had one particularly pleasant surprise during the reception, when that great track and field historian Roberto Quercetani came up to me and presented me with my "history": the record of every performance I ever made since starting my track career. He is really a charming and cultivated man of a breed which, unfortunately, appears to be in danger of extinction these days!

The reception over, there was a final duty call to be made, albeit an agreeable one: a stopover at the American Consulate for their reception. Once again, this was in a wonderful location. The Consulate is fortunate to be housed in a magnificent "palazzo" on the Lungarno, which has been restored by the US government to its original splendour.

We went on from the Consulate to the final dinner of the trip, preceded by yet another brief interview; this time with Tele Monte Carlo.

Dinner over it was time to head back to the hotel once more and a few short hours of sleep. I had to take an early flight in the morning so as to be back in Houston in time to go over to the University of Houston for the annual Carl Lewis indoor High School meet.

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