Still a major force in track and field both internationally and as a mentor for current American Olympic athletes, Jackie Joyner-Kersee will leave in the next few days for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the XXX1 Olympiad.
A two-time gold medal winner in the heptathlon and still owner of the Olympic record of 7,291 points set in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Joyner-Kersee won six medals in a span of four Olympics. She also still owns the Olympic mark in the women’s long jump.
On a hot, humid Tuesday morning in July, the woman Sports Illustrated named the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century, Joyner-Kersee was competing once again. She led the JJK Foundation team against in the East St. Louis Citywide Field Day at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center.
The event didn’t draw world-wide attention, but for the hometown hero, being on hand and giving out medals and trophies to the children of her hometown was just as rewarding. “Jackie” belonged to East St. Louis before she became an Olympic legend.
I am really anxious to see how Brittney Reese will do. She is a great person in addition to being a great athlete. I really think she has an excellent chance of breaking my Olympic record in the long jump.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, East St. Louis native and Olympic legend
“It’s a fun event for the kids in which we try to mimic some of the events of the heptathlon,’’ Joyner-Kersee said. “We don’t have the facilities to have a long jump pit to where we can have the actual events. Maybe someday we will have a track to where we can do that.
“But thanks to the Greater East St. Louis Community Fund, it’s great to be able to host this event. Plus a lot of these kids are going through our Winning in Life curriculum which focus on 13 principles which include; determination, dedication, self-respect and service.’’
Whether its working with the youth of East St. Louis or mentoring world class athletes — like fellow East St. Louis native and Olympic gold medal winner Dawn Harper and world champion Alyson Felix — helping athletes reach their potential is what Joyner-Kersee is all about.
The trip to Rio
A member of the USA Track and Field Board of Directors, Joyner-Kersee stays busy along with her husband, track and field coach Bob Kersee. She still makes many personal appearances around the world and also spends time working with her JJK Foundation.
But like most Americans, Joyner-Kersee will be a fan for most of the next two weeks.
“I am hoping our athletes go in and perform well. I think they will,’’ Joyner-Kersee said. “Being on the USA (Track and Field) board, I’ll have some obligations at the Olympics and I’ll go down and help as a mentor for a few athletes. I’ll try to mix in a little pleasure and hopefully maybe do some sightseeing.’’
Joyner-Kersee said she understands the concerns of athletes revolving around the Zika virus.
“The athletes themselves will stay in the Olympic Village but the Zika virus is a concern for anybody competing in or attending the Olympic Games,’’ Joyner-Kersee said. “I plan to cover myself as much as I can when I’m out.’’
It’s always a thrill to see young athletes get up on that podium for the first time. Just as it is to see some of the older athletes do well and add to their legacy.
As a mentor for several of the young track and field athletes who will be representing the United States in Rio, Joyner-Kersee can’t help recall her first Olympic experience at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. She knows the anxiety and pressure they are feeling.
Her advice? Take time to enjoy the experience.
“One of the highlights for me know is watching these young athletes in their first Olympics and hoping that they do well,’’ Joyner-Kersee said. “It’s always a thrill to see young athletes get up on that podium for the first time. Just as it is to see some of the older athletes do well and add to their legacy.
“I am really anxious to see how (2012 gold medal winnner) Brittney Reese will do. She is a great person in addition to being a great athlete. I really think she has an excellent chance of breaking my Olympic record in the long jump. Then I think we have athletes who will do well in the multi-events (heptathlon). If I was competing this year, I would be shooting for 7,000 points in order to win a medal.’’
The best ever
Jackie Joyner-Kersee is a 1980 graduate of East St. Louis Lincoln High School and later attended UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) where she competed in both basketball and track and field. A two-time state champion in the long jump, Joyner qualified for the 1980 United States Olympic Trials in the event where she placed eighth.
Although one of the top young athletes in the nation in the long jump, Joyner-Kersee was introduced to other events by another East St. Louis track and field legend, current East St. Louis girls track and field coach Nino Fennoy.
“Coach Fennoy always put us in multi-events. I didn’t know how to hurdle. Even when they changed from the pentathlon to the heptathlon, I had never thrown the javelin. I had to learn to do these events,’’ Joyner-Kersee said. “I had the ability to jump very well. I played basketball and volleyball, but I was very inspired by women who could do many events and be successful. and I was determined to become one of those women.
“Every young girl wants to be a sprinter. They want to run the 100 or 200 meters and I see these gifted athletes who might be better off if they become multi-sport athletes. But often times they don’t want to put in the work. I think a lot of it is psychological. A lot of athletes think that if they do one event that they can be great.
To be an Olympic champion is very special because you have to be ready to go on those certain days in which your events take place. You can’t be injured. There are no second chances. That’s what makes it so exclusive.
At UCLA, she was a forward for the Bruins basketball team during her first three years then red-shirted her fourth year to concentrate her efforts on the heptathlon in the ‘84 Los Angeles Olympics.
In her first appearance on the world’s biggest athletic stage, Joyner-Kersee would go on to win the silver medal in the heptathlon — a grueling two-day test of seven events including the 100 meter hurdles, high jump, long jump, shot put, javelin, 200 and 800 meters. She lost the gold medal by only five points points to Australian Glynis Nunn.
That runner-up finish only served as extra motivation for Joyner-Kersee, who went on to win the gold medal in the heptathlon at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and also captured the gold medal in the long jump with mark of 24 feet 3 1/4 inches. That leap is still the longest in Olympic games history.
The record jump came on Sept. 29, 1988, five days after Joyner-Kersee won the heptathlon with 7,291 points. That performance was one of the greatest in Olympic history, men or women.
But they aren’t the highlights for Joyner-Kersee.
“I was fortunate to run the table as far as championships. I was a junior national champion, I was a state champion, I was an NCAA champion, a world champion and an Olympic champion,’’ Joyner-Kersee said. “To be an Olympic champion is very special because you have to be ready to go on those certain days in which your events take place. You can’t be injured. There are no second chances. That’s what makes it so exclusive.
“The United States sends about 550 athletes to the Olympic Games. To be one of those 550 athletes says a lot and to be able to represent the United States is a great honor. And then to be able to go, represent the United States against the best in the world.”