Born into poverty in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Ewell was one of the world's leading sprinters of the 1940s. Ewell attended John Piersol McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. McCaskey High School honored Ewell by dedicating their stadium in his name. Ewell was also inducted into the J.P. McCaskey Athletic Hall of Fame during the school's 50th anniversary year in 1988. Earlier in 1986 he was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Ewell was the state's greatest high school sprinter-jumper in the mid-1930s, but he first achieved renown while a student at Pennsylvania State University, running the 100 m and 200 m races and winning 12 gold medals and championships in collegiate meets between 1940 and 1942. He also won 11 gold medals in AAU national meets between 1939 and 1948. He was an outstanding long jumper as well, leaping 25 feet 2 inches (7.68 m) in 1942.
He served his country in 1941–1945, returned to the university, and received his B.S. degree in 1947. He surprised everyone by making the 1948 Olympic team, equaling the world record of 10.2 in the 100 m dash at the 1948 AAU championship, which was also the Olympic trials.
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