Multitalented athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee (born 1962) was one of the top American track stars of the 1980s and 1990s, winning numerous Olympic medals and setting or tying records in several events.
She was the first American ever to win a gold medal in the long jump and the first woman in history to earn more than 7,000 points in the grueling seven-event heptathlon. She won three Olympic gold medals, one silver, and two bronze, and she established a world record in the heptathlon. Her achievements are so astounding-and her personality so engaging-that she has become one of America's favorite track athletes. According to Kenny Moore in Sports Illustrated, Joyner-Kersee, "like her name, is a blend. Her years of hard, thoughtful training are the Kersee part, the expression of her husband-coach Bob Kersee's hatred of talent lying fallow. The Joyner half is Jackie in competition. She wants to win, but having won, wants to go on. She wants to impress, but having performed gloriously, still wants to go on. The Joyner gift is her open joy in practiced, powerful movement, in improvement for its own sake, and it causes observers to presume, in error, that what she does is without personal cost."
Indeed, Joyner-Kersee has often found herself in competition with only the clock and the yardstick, having left her competitors in the dust. Not satisfied just to win, she struggles for records, for solid recognition that she dominates her sport. She has won championships-Olympic and otherwise-with hamstring injuries, has broken world records in heat that would stagger a camel, and has managed through it all to maintain a stable relationship with her husband-coach Bob Kersee. As Ken Denlinger put it in the Washington Post, Joyner-Kersee "smokes the world's playgrounds as no other female athlete in history."
Before Joyner-Kersee set her sights on it, the heptathlon was a virtually unknown event in America. It has since become a track and field favorite, especially during the Olympics. For the heptathlon, athletes amass points by running a 200-meter dash, completing both high and long jumps, throwing a javelin and a shot put, running the 100-meter hurdles, and finishing an 800-meter run, all in the space of two days. The seven-event series demands skills in a variety of areas that most athletes choose as specialties.
Joyner-Kersee has been a star in the heptathlon since 1984, when she won a silver medal after losing the 800-meter run by a fraction of a second. In the 1988 and 1992 Olympics she won a gold in the event. Even more remarkable, she has managed to single out one specialty-the long jump-and win Olympic medals in that event as well. In 1988, she earned a gold medal for a jump; in both 1992 and 1996 she settled graciously for a bronze. A drug-free athlete sometimes faced with steroid-enhanced competitors, Joyner-Kersee is the first American woman ever to win an Olympic long jump competition.
Born on March 3, 1962, Joyner-Kersee grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, a poverty-stricken city on the Mississippi River. Her parents, Alfred and Mary Joyner, were barely in their teens when they got married. Mary was only 14 when her first child, Al, was born and just 16 when she gave birth to Jackie, in 1962. Both parents worked hard to provide for their growing family, Alfred in construction and on the railroads and Mary as a nurse's aid. The couple's salaries were hardly adequate, and the Joyners knew real desperation. Moore in Sports Illustrated wrote: "Their house was little more than wallpaper and sticks, with four tiny bedrooms. During the winters, when the hot-water pipes would freeze, they had to heat water for baths in kettles on the kitchen stove. Their great-grandmother (on their father's side) lived with them until she died on the plastic-covered sofa in the living room while Jackie was at the store buying milk."
The Joyner family-especially Jackie-wished desperately for better circumstances. A grandmother had named her "Jacqueline," after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the wife of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy, hoping that the youngster would someday be "first lady" of something. Joyner-Kersee's brother Al, himself an Olympic gold medalist, told Sports Illustrated: "I remember Jackie and me crying together in a back room in that house, swearing that someday we were going to make it. Make it out. Make things different." Their mother encouraged Joyner-Kersee and her brother to improve. Having been a teenaged parent herself, Mary Joyner told the children they could not date until the age of 18 and spurred their interest in other activities.
As a child, Joyner-Kersee began to study modern dance at the local community center. One day she saw a sign advertising a new track program and decided to give it a try. At first Joyner-Kersee lost every race, but soon she was winning. In 1976, she watched the Olympics on television and later recalled in the Chicago Tribune, "I decided I wanted to go. I wanted to be on TV, too." After that she tried harder and became a tremendously versatile athlete at a very tender age. The first competitor she beat regularly was her older brother, Al. The two siblings began to spur one another on to greater and greater achievements, growing very close in the process.
At the age of 14, Joyner-Kersee won the first of four straight national junior pentathlon championships. Track and field events were only part of the weapons in her arsenal, however. In high school she was a state champion in both track and basketball. Her Lincoln High School basketball team won games by an average of 52.8 points during her senior year. Joyner-Kersee also played volleyball and continued to encourage her brother in his sporting career. Her athletic achievements notwithstanding, she was an excellent student who finished in the top ten percent of her graduating class.
Joyner-Kersee was heavily recruited by high-ranking colleges and chose the University of California at Los Angeles. She began school there in 1980 on a basketball scholarship. Tragedy struck in her freshman year when her mother developed a rare form of meningitis and died at the age of 37. Stunned by the sudden and unexpected loss, both Jackie and Al Joyner dedicated themselves to athletics with new resolve. Having returned to UCLA, Joyner-Kersee became a starting forward for the Bruins and worked with the track team as a long jumper. She was rather surprised to find herself singled out by an assistant track coach named Bob Kersee, who detected untapped possibilities in the young collegian. "I saw this talent walking around the campus that everyone was blind to," he told Sports Illustrated. "No one was listening to her mild requests to do more. So I went to the athletic director and made him a proposition."
Kersee literally put his own job on the line, demanding to coach Jackie Joyner in multi-events, or he would quit. The university athletic department agreed to his plan. The coach remarked in Sports Illustrated, "By 1982, I could see she'd be the world record holder." Joyner-Kersee was already a powerhouse in the long jump and the 200-meter sprint. She was also a top scoring forward on the basketball team, so her endurance was excellent. Al Joyner taught her how to run the hurdles and to throw the javelin-a type of spear-and the shot put-a heavy palm-sized metal ball.
By 1983, Joyner-Kersee qualified for the world track and field championships in Helsinki, Finland. Her first chance to be a world champion ended in disaster, however, when she pulled a hamstring muscle and could not complete the heptathlon. Ironically, her brother Al was also present, and he too was injured. Al Joyner told Sports Illustrated that he consoled his sister by telling her, "It's just not our time yet." In 1984, both Jackie and Al Joyner qualified for the U.S. Olympic team. Having recovered from her injuries, Jackie was a favorite to win the heptathlon. Al, on the other hand, was not considered likely to win his event, the triple jump.
Confounding all predictions, Jackie won the silver medal in the heptathlon, missing the gold by only .06 seconds in her final event, the 800-meter run. Meanwhile, Al Joyner became the first American in 80 years to win the Olympic triple jump. The tears Jackie shed at the end of the day were not for her hair's-breadth loss, but rather for joy at her brother's victory. Both of them knew that Jackie would be back to compete another day.
The depths of Joyner-Kersee's potential began to be apparent in 1985, when she set a U.S. record with a long jump measuring 23 feet 9 inches. By then she had quit playing basketball and was devoting herself exclusively to track, under the guidance of Bob Kersee. Their relationship became romantic after years spent working together as friends, and they were married on January 11, 1986. When Al Joyner was wed to a sprinter named Florence Griffith, the stage was set for the emergence of a track and field "family" of champions: Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith Joyner. The two women were among an elite cadre of track stars coached by Bob Kersee in preparation for the 1988 Olympic Games.
In 1985, Joyner-Kersee was ranked third in the world heptathlon. She changed that ranking forever at the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow. There she set a world record in the event with 7,148 points-more than 200 points higher than her nearest competitor in history. Just three weeks later she broke her own record with a score of 7,161 points in Houston, Texas, where temperatures reached 100 degrees during competition. Her devotion to the heptathlon was recognized by numerous awards, including the 1986 Sullivan Award for best amateur athlete and the coveted Jesse Owens Award.
Joyner-Kersee's performance at the 1988 Olympics was nothing short of phenomenal. Not only did she win a gold medal in the heptathlon, she also took the gold medal in the long jump, flying 24 feet, 3.5 inches. Her heptathlon score of 7,291 points was her fourth world record, and many predicted it would probably stand for several years. Joyner-Kersee's achievement in the 1988 Olympics was particularly exciting because multi-event track competitions and the long jump had been dominated by countries of the former Soviet Bloc, where steroid use among athletes was acceptable. Joyner-Kersee became not only the first American woman to win a gold medal in the Olympic long jump, she also became the first athlete in 64 years to win a gold in both a multi-event and a single event.
Much attention has been focused over the years on the relationship between Jackie Joyner-Kersee and her coach and husband, Bob. The pair have been spotted quarreling during competition. Kersee is an exacting man who makes his demands well known. The coach told the Chicago Tribune that he and his wife try not to take their disagreements home with them at night. "We want to make it in terms of the coach-athlete relationship, and we want to stay married for the rest of our lives," he said. "So we've got rules in terms of our coach-athlete relationship and our husband-wife relationship." He added: "I'm surprised it works as well as it does, and I'm happy it does for both of us. We enjoy sports so much, and we enjoy one another so much, it would be a shame if we let track and field get in the way of our personal life, or our personal life get in the way of track and field."
Joyner-Kersee has not been able to break her 1988 Olympic heptathlon record. Since then she has re-injured her hamstring and had moments when she lacked the resolve to continue. The incessant prodding of Kersee has kept her at the top of the world standings, however. In 1992, she sought to become the fourth woman in Olympic history to win four gold medals. Her performance in the heptathlon earned her another gold, but she could only turn in a bronze medal performance in the long jump. The 30-year-old Joyner-Kersee was gracious about her defeat in the long jump, because the winner was her close friend, Heike Drechsler, of Germany. Joyner-Kersee told the Los Angeles Times that she was thrilled for her rival. "With other athletes, even though you're fierce competitors, you get a sense of them as people, whether they're nice," she said. "You still want to beat them, but when the competition is over, you realize that there's more to life than athletics."
Into the 1990s, Joyner-Kersee continued to compete in track and field, stating that she wanted to end her Olympic career on American soil. She entered the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, but was suffering from an injury to her right hamstring. She came away with another bronze in the long jump and withdrew from the heptathlon. Although she did not plan to compete in another set of Olympic games, Joyner-Kersee had no plans to abandon the sport. For some time, Joyner-Kersee had indicated that she might look to other sports besides track and field. In 1996, she signed a one-year contract with the Richmond Rage, a professional team in the newly formed American Basketball League (ABL). She did not end up spending much time on the court, though, and left in mid-season due to concerns over possible injuries.
Joyner-Kersee continued to compete in track and field events once she gave up her basketball career while also keeping busy with other projects. She functioned as a spokesperson for Nike's PLAY (Participate in the Lives of America's Youth) program, helping to raise funds for youth activity centers and providing scholarship money to youth through the Joyner-Kersee Community Foundation. She also worked with children in her hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois. After many years of trying to rebuild the crumbling Mary E. Brown Community Center, she announced in 1997 that the Joyner-Kersee Community Foundation would provide funds to build a new recreational facility on 37 acres in the center of East St. Louis. In addition to basketball courts, ball fields, and indoor and outdoor tracks, the center was to be equipped with computers, a library, and other educational resources.
Joyner-Kersee published her autobiography, A New Kind of Grace, in 1997. She registered to become an agent with the National Football League Players Association in 1998 and founded a sports management company to represent athletes in a number of sports. By the end of the year she had signed three NFL players to her list. In addition, she won the heptathlon in the Goodwill Games in July of 1998, marking the end of her illustrious career. She officially retired at age 36 on August 1, 1998, with a long jump in her hometown that was mostly ceremonial. Up until and after her final event, she remained legendary not only for her extraordinary skill, but also for her charming personality. Los Angeles Times reporter Randy Harvey wrote of Joyner-Kersee: "She is one of the warmest, most even-tempered persons in athletics. The next bad word that anyone who knows her, including her competitors, says about her will be the first."
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Women's Sports and Fitness, January-February 1995, p. 21; November-December 1998, p. 42. □