Long jump world record holder Mike Powell is set to make his competitive return on Saturday at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Wellington. The 51-year-old will have the world masters 50-54 age group record 6.84m in his sights, but that's just the start.

In April 2013 Mike Powell was invited to compete in a celebrity TV long jump competition in Japan – the country where he posted his iconic world record leap of 8.95m in 1991. In the audience was Carl Lewis, his long jump rival for so much of his career, and Willie Banks, his good friend and former triple jump world record holder.

Yet Powell, weighing in at 112kg – almost 35kg heavier than when he was in his athletic prime – did not enjoy a pleasant experience.

“Some of the guys we were up against were not even real athletes and one of them kicked my butt,” he recalls with a frown. “I was fat. I looked horrible. It was then that Willie said 'use it as motivation' [to lose weight].”

A shocked Powell returned to his home in Rancho Cucamonga, California a man on a mission. He hit the treadmill and gradually shed the pounds. He also had a second motivation. Ever since formally retiring from world-class long jumping after failing to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics, Powell had loosely spoken about targeting world masters records. 

A combination of injury, job changes and his sheer size had prevented that, but as the weight started to fall, his ambitions grew. 18 months on from that horror show on Japanese TV, Powell is a trim 83kg. Competing is now once again at the forefront of his mind.

“Fat doesn't fly and now I'm lighter it is about me getting that masters record,” admits Powell, who coaches out of the Academy of Speed in his home city.

Mike Powell ()

Celebrating after jumping 8.95m to set a new world record and winning the 1991 Tokyo World Championships

A self-confessed track geek, Powell knows that at the age of 51 his prospects of competing consistently at a world-class level are over. A longstanding patella injury means he currently can't jump off his favoured left leg and he faces three months of leg strengthening exercises before he can even contemplate jumping off his favoured leg. 

Yet Powell's never been one to shy away from a challenge. Maybe it is in the family genes: his brother, Ron, is one of the world's leading percussionists and plays for Kenny G and Diana Ross. And he does not see competing in Wellington and posting a potential world masters record as the limit of his ambitions.

“I know I can jump 8.30m,” he says. That mark would have ranked him eighth in the world in 2014 and gained him a medal at each of the past two world champs and Olympic Games.

“I know I can't jump it very often. Maybe once or twice. I know all the stars have to align, but, hey, that is enough of a chance for me to go for it.

“If I continue to stay healthy, I hope to get the qualification mark for the US Olympic Trials [in 2016]. They take the top 24 athletes, so I know anything high 7.80m is going to make the trials. That is the next goal, to get to the trials and then use my experience.”

Mike Powell ()

Powell reenacts his world record attempt in NZ ahead of Saturday's national champs, where he will make his competitive return

Powell today adopts a very different approach to training than in his prime. Dancing forms a big part of his daily fitness regime: “I tell the kids I coach that dancing and athletic movement are the same thing and the more you control the movement, the more efficient you are.”

His general overall conditioning is excellent. He can do more pull-ups today than when he was a world-class athlete. Through coaching and experience he has a far greater knowledge of how the body works.

Currently in New Zealand helping to promote the IAAF Nestle Kids' Athletics programme, competing at their national championships just seemed like a natural fit to launch his comeback.

“My original plan was to come here and jump 8 metres. But now the plan [following injuries] is to get the masters world record,” admits Powell. “I then hope to get in another jump before the end of the year and post a qualifying mark for Olympic Trials. Then people will know I'm serious. I think at worst I'll qualify for the trials. Then, when I do, I can look at jumping 8.30m and 8.40m.”

But Powell is far from flippant about the challenges that lie ahead.

“This is going to be the most difficult thing I've done before in my life,” he says. “But imagine if I do it aged 51, then there will be a whole pack of people behind who will follow.

“And you know what? If I don't break the world masters record, and I know I will, I will still be fit. I'm 51. I look good and I'm happy, so I'm already winning.”