Like a shooting star, sprinter Valerie Brisco-Hooks shone for a brief, glorious moment in the public's eye before speeding away, never to reach the same vaunted height. While she shone, however, Brisco-Hooks burned especially bright. In the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Brisco-Hooks accomplished what no other athlete, man or woman, had ever done by winning gold medals in 200- and 400-meter races in the same Olympic Games. She capped her starring performance by running a leg on the United States women's 4×400 meter relay team and capturing her third gold medal of the games.
Brother's Death Shaped Her Life
Though she was born in the heart of the rural South in Greenwood, Mississippi, Brisco-Hooks moved with her family to an urban ghetto—the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles—before she entered elementary school. Brisco-Hooks was one of ten children. Her father was a metal worker and her mother taught school. One of Brisco-Hooks's older brothers, Robert, was a star runner at Locke High School in Los Angeles. When she was fourteen, Robert and another brother Melvin were finishing a workout at the Locke High School track when a stray bullet struck Robert. He died later that day.
When the police eventually learned who fired the gun, they did not prosecute the shooter because he was only in the ninth grade. He did not have to live with his guilt long, however, as one year and a day later, the boy who shot Robert Brisco was himself shot and killed.
Until her brother's death, Brisco-Hooks was known as an undisciplined and unruly child. The loss of Robert helped her set personal goals and dedicate herself to achieving them. Urged by her high school's track coach to come out for the team, Brisco-Hooks proved to be a standout runner on the same track where her brother was slain. As she said afterwards, "Someone has to carry on the family name, so they chose me."
Pregnancy Impeeds Performance
Brisco-Hooks continued to excel in her track career at the collegiate level while she attended California State-Northridge. In 1979 she won 200-meter final in the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) championships. In that same year she represented the United States and the Pan-American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, winning a gold medal as a member of the United States's 4×400 meter relay team.
|1960||Born July 6 in Greenwood, Mississippi|
|1964||Moves with her family to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles|
|1974||Brother Robert shot by stray bullet while jogging on Los Angeles track|
|1979||Stars in track and field at California-State Northridge|
|1981||Marries Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alvin Hooks|
|1982||Gives birth to son Alvin Hooks, Jr.|
|1982||Gains 40 pounds a result of pregnancy, running career on hiatus|
|1982||Husband cut from Philadelphia Eagles|
|1983||Resume training under tutelage of Bobby Kersee|
|1983||Husband cut from Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League|
|1984||Wins 3 Gold Medals in the Los Angeles Olympics|
|1984||Appears on "Cosby Show" defeating Bill Cosby on final leg of a charity 4×400 meter relay race|
|1985||Begins speaking to Los Angeles school children about dangers of using drugs|
Brisco-Hooks continued to run, and in 1981 she married a former standout on the Cal State Northridge men's track team, Alvin Hooks. Now known as Valerie Brisco-Hooks, she gave birth to a son, Alvin, Jr., the next year. The birth of her child almost proved to be the death of her running career. For the nine months of her pregnancy and the nine months that followed, Brisco-Hooks was physically inactive, preferring to watch soap operas. At her heaviest, Brisco-Hooks topped the scales at 198 pounds, almost 70 pounds above her competitive weight of 130.
When Brisco-Hooks finally became restless herself, her husband Alvin and her former coach Bobby Kersee persuaded her that she could compete again at a world class level. With Kersee as her coach and Alvin taking care of the baby (Alvin was cut from the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League at the end of the 1983 season), slowly but surely Brisco-Hooks dropped weight and picked up her speed. Said Brisco-Hooks of her comeback, "I was really big. It took me a while to really believe in myself and want to run," but "Bobby kept coming to my house and saying, 'Valerie, I know you have it in you.'"
An Unprecedented Olympic Achievement
By early 1984, Brisco-Hooks was back in better form than she had ever been before. She won the national 200-yard indoor crown and that summer captured the 400-meter outdoor title. At the Olympic trials, Brisco-Hooks qualified to represent the United States in the individual 200- and 400-meter races and the 4×400-meter relay.
When the 1984 Olympics began Brisco-Hooks aimed to do what no athlete had ever done—win both the 200-meter and 400-meter races in the same Olympic games. Going into the competition she had two factors working in her favor: first, the games were being held in her home-town of Los Angeles; second, and most important, the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Olympics meant most of the world's best female best sprinters would be at home, rather than challenging their underdog American foes.
In the end, Brisco-Hooks left no doubt about who was the best sprinter in Los Angeles. She dominated her competition in both the 400- and 200-meter races. She dedicated the former victory to her slain brother Robert and the latter to the rest of her family. After Brisco-Hooks won the 400, Bobby Kersee eluded security and tackled her to offer his unique congratulations. The two rolled around on the Coliseum ground in one of the great moments of the Games. Brisco-Hooks capped her performance later in the meet by running a leg on the United States women's victorious 4×400-meter relay team.
Another Olympic Medal
Though much was written about her failure to win lucrative endorsements following the 1984 Olympics, Brisco-Hooks repeatedly told reporters that she was not upset that her athletic success did not translate financially. Free from the time constraints of making commercials, in 1985 Brisco-Hooks used her new-found celebrity to lecture to Los Angeles-area school children about the dangers of drug abuse.
Brisco-Hooks continued to compete on the international track and field scene setting a world indoor record in 400-yard run in 1985, and winning a world outdoor title in 400-meter run in 1986. She finished her accolade-heavy career in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. Brisco-Hooks ran a leg on the United States women's 4×400-meter relay that finished second to the Soviet team and set an American record in the process. The performance earned her her first Olympic silver medal and fourth Olympic medal of her career.
A Life of Triumph and Tragedy
Brisco-Hooks's life has not been without tragedy since the death of her older brother Robert. In 1985, Valerie's brother Melvin, who was at the track the day his brother Robert was shot, tried to cross a Los Angeles freeway when his car broke down. Melvin was hit by a passing car and suffered two broken legs. In 2002, Valerie's nephew Amar Brisco, a former University of Nevada-Las Vegas football player was shot and killed outside a Las Vegas nightclub, after arguing about a valet parking space.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1979||Gold medal in Pan American Games on 4×400 meter relay|
|1981||Set national junior college records at 200 meter and 400 meter distances|
|1984||Won national indoor title at 200 yards|
|1984||Won national outdoor title in 400 meters in 49.83 becoming first American woman to break 50 seconds in that event|
|1984||Ran anchor leg on 4×400 meter relay setting American record (3:19.60)|
|1984||Won two gold medals in 200-meter (21.81 seconds), 400-meter races (48.83 seconds) setting American and Olympic records in both. Won third gold medal in the 4×400-meter relay (3:18.29)|
|1985||Set world indoor record of 52.99 in 400-meter run|
|1986||Won national outdoor title in 400-meter run|
|1987||Gold medal in Pan American Games on 4×400 meter relay|
|1987||Bronze medal at 400 meters in World Championships|
|1988||Won fourth Olympic medal of career, a silver, with leg on United States 4×400 meter relay (3:15.51) in Seoul, South Korea|
|1995||Inducted into USA Track & Field Hall of Fame|
Despite the family tragedies she endured and the physical hurdles she overcame, Valerie Brisco-Hooks will be remembered primarily for her one great achievement. In 1984, she became the first athlete, male or female, to win the 200- and 400-meter races in the same Olympic Games.
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Hickok Sports.com Sports Biographies. http://www.hickoksports.com/biograph/briscohv.shtml (January 24, 2003).
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Sketch by Ian David Hoffman
"Brisco-Hooks, Valerie." Notable Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/brisco-hooks-valerie
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