Athlete, Actor, Activist. Damien Leake is a Triple Threat Breaking Barriers

In

Damien Leake has rewritten the masters track and field record book, setting age-group world records in the 50, 60, 100 and 200 meter dashes. Leake is the fastest man over 70 who has ever lived.

Born in the Bronx, he grew up in a multi-generational household and remembers his father, an army veteran, reading Shakespeare to this great grandfather, a man born a slave, who couldn’t read. 

When he was encouraged to audition for New York’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts, Damien Leake recited a speech from Shakespeare’s Mark Antony and was accepted.

Damien Leake (right) at New York’s High School of Performing Arts

Leake landed his first acting job as a senior and, with the exception of a stint in the Army, has worked as an actor ever since, appearing in more than 70 films including Serpico, Death WishApocalypse Now, The Great Debaters, and The Killing Floor.

Leake (left) in Death Wish

On television he’s appeared in NCIS, SWAT, Ghost Whisperer, Medal of Honor, Tyler Perry’s Assisted Living and dozens more. He’s been equally busy on and off Broadway as an actor, singer, dancer, musical director, playwright, and more.

Leake, pictured with cast of NCIS

Leake’s father also sparked a lifelong interest in civil rights activism. Damien was 12 when Medgar Evers was murdered by a Ku Klux Klan member and he was 14 when Malcolm X was assassinated.  

“When Medgar was killed, my father was very angry and he was very upset, but he explained it in a very calm and rational way,” Leake recalled. “When Malcolm X was killed, it was a very similar thing. He came home and I remember him coming in the house and being very frustrated and angry. And I started to understand what’s going on.”

Three years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and 16-year-old Damien was crushed.

“I was emotionally devastated by it because I thought, if you’re going to kill a man whose attitude is, ‘let’s be peaceful and we have to have peaceful resolutions for things,’ well then, there’s terribly little hope for us,” Leake said. “I was very angry, and it was in that moment that I decided, no, I was not going to stand for the national anthem again.”

Just six months later, his love for track and field and his belief in civil rights activism intersected at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He cheered as Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters and then ignited a firestorm of controversy with their black power salute on the podium. 

Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games

“It was such an ‘aha moment,’ that I was thrilled. I was thrilled by the gesture,” Leake said. “I have a poster of it in my house. I was thrilled by the gesture. It was just overwhelming to me.”

The U.S. Olympic Committee expelled both Smith and Carlos from the Games. But decades later they’ve become iconic symbols of human rights, winning the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, and honored by presidents. Leake ran into Tommie Smith one day at Santa Monica College, where Smith was coaching.

“I went over to him and I said, ‘Mr. Smith, I cannot explain to you what that moment, what you’ve done for us all. And I want you to know how much I appreciate it.’ He responded, ‘Well, I’m still out here doing what I can do.’ And that’s been my attitude about everything since that. I’m going to do what I can do,” Leake said.

That desire to make a difference led to a passion that Damien says has transformed his life – coaching kids. His team is called Leake’s Leapers and he teaches them as much about success in life as he does in long jumping.

“Give me a 10-year old who suddenly gets that look on his face of, ‘That was great.’ And that smile. Oh, baby. I melt. It’s changed me, totally. I have to say it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.” 

It was at an all-comers meet for athletes of all ages, that he first realized there was such a thing as masters track and field.

“You mean we get to still do this?” Leake remembers reacting. “So, two weeks later I ran in my first meet, and one of the guys that was timing said, ‘You know you’re only like a half second off the world record.’ And I went, ‘Oh, my, now I have to train. Now I have to train.'”

From there, the rest is track and field history. Despite all his world records, the main reason Leake urges other adults over 50 to join the world of masters athletics is for the community of support it brings.

“I think the main thing is the camaraderie, I think that it gives us a community, it gives us a sense of belonging and getting to do something that we love to do,” Leake told Growing Bolder at the 2023 National Senior Games. “And you’ve got to keep it moving. I mean, this is your shot, this is your time. No matter what happens to you or what presents itself, you got to keep moving.”

Click here to listen to our entire conversation with Damien Leake on our Fountain of Youth podcast.

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