OMAHA, Neb. — Jackie Joyner-Kersee delivered a poignant message about reaching goals to middle-school students at Boys Town, and then the woman who's considered one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century told them the real reason she pursued the Olympic dream.
"I wanted to be on TV," she said, drawing laughs. "I didn't know I was going to win medals and do the things I did."
Joyner-Kersee made an easy connection Tuesday with residents of the nationally renowned home for troubled youths. She spent a half-hour telling stories about growing up poor in East St. Louis, how she drew on the support of coaches, family and friends to achieve success and how she is determined to give back through programs she runs through her foundation.
She toured the Boys Town campus and learned about what goes on at the institution founded in 1917 by Father Flanagan and made famous in the 1938 movie starring Spencer Tracey and Mickey Rooney. She was the featured guest at the annual Boys Town booster banquet in the evening.
"It's very impressive to know that there are people who care about young people and the passion and energy that goes into transforming someone's life and transitioning them into a position that can be better for them," Joyner-Kersee said.
Since retiring from track and field after her fourth, and final, Olympics in 1996, Joyner-Kersee has worked in youth mentoring. Headquarters for her efforts are the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis. The youth center was built through her foundation in 2000 and includes basketball courts, athletic fields, computers and community rooms.
The center fell on hard times and closed for six months before reopening in 2011, she said, and full-time staff has had to be cut from more than 30 to two. Still, her work continues.
"We use sports as a hook," she said. "We get them in there and teach them life skills and work with them academically."
Joyner-Kersee, 51, devotes much of her time to a mentoring program for girls called "Winning in Life, Winning for Life" and teaching youngsters about food and nutrition, among other things.
Before Joyner-Kersee met with the Boys Town students, they were shown a short video highlighting an athletic career in which she won Olympic gold medals in the 1988 and '92 heptathlon and 1988 long jump.
When it came time for a question-answer period, the students eagerly raised their hands:
How fast can you run? "Once upon a time, I could run fast. If a dog chases me, I still could run fast."
When did you start in track? "Nine. I wasn't very good. My first competition I finished last."
Why did she stick with track: "Because I wanted to be good at it."
The hardest obstacles she overcame? "Being an asthmatic and trying to be the best in track and field, not being able to breath. As a freshman in college, I lost my mother to spinal meningitis unexpected, and how do I deal with the rest of my life?"
Joyner-Kersee, who grew up in poverty with bad influences all around her in East St. Louis, said no obstacle is insurmountable for youngsters who are determined.
"Throughout life, we're faced with difficult times, difficult situations, but we -- me and you -- have the power to change it," she told the kids. "We have to have an open mind and an open heart to make that happen. I wish you the best success. Dream the impossible dream and work hard to make that dream become a reality."