Joyner-Kersee, Jackie (1962—)

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Joyner-Kersee, Jackie (1962—)

African-American Olympic track-and-field athlete who won three Olympic gold medals in the heptathlon, making her the greatest multi-event champion ever, man or woman. Name variations: Jackie Joyner. Born on March 3, 1962, in East St. Louis, Illinois; one of four children of Mary and Albert Joyner; sister-in-law of Florence Griffith Joyner; attended University of California at Los Angeles; married Robert Kersee (her coach), on January 11, 1986.

Began competing in local track-and-field events at age nine (1971); won first of four AAU Junior Olympics pentathlon titles (1977); won a basketball scholarship to UCLA; became a star performer on that school's women's basketball and track teams; competed in first Olympic Games in Los Angeles (1984), winning the silver medal in the heptathlon; broke the world high-jump record at the Goodwill Games in Moscow, and became the first woman to score more than 7,000 points (1986); won two gold medals in the high jump and heptathlon at the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea (1988); won a bronze in the long jump and a gold in the heptathlon at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain (1992); won a bronze in the long jump at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia (1996); won a gold medal in the heptathlon in the Goodwill Games in New York (1998). Also active in self-development programs for inner city youth, especially in her hometown, where she has organized and funded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Community Foundation using the proceeds of her various commercial endorsement contracts.

On most afternoons during the school year in the late 1960s, students streaming out of a grade school in East St. Louis, Illinois, could be seen buying a few pieces of candy from a tall, graceful schoolmate to sweeten the trip home. The pennies and nickels they handed over to Jackie Joyner were the first contributions toward an athletic career that would make her the most famous woman athlete of the century since Mildred "Babe" Didrickson Zaharias , and would lead an admiring Bill Cosby to call her "the best athlete in the world, period." Joyner-Kersee carefully saved the money to finance her travel with the school track club, of which she had been a star performer since the age of nine. It was an early sign of the remarkable spirit that would bring her such success in later years, a spirit based on what she once described as her "three D's": desire, dedication, and determination. "If you want to be successful in anything," Joyner-Kersee has pointed out, "you must have discipline. You have to set goals and then accomplish them."

One day, I'm going to go to the Olympics.

—Jackie Joyner, at 14, to her brother.

Jackie was the second of four children of Alfred and Mary Joyner , who had married in their teens and were barely in their twenties when their first daughter was born on March 3, 1962. By the time of Jackie's birth, East St. Louis—a once prosperous, mostly African-American community on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, opposite St. Louis, Missouri—had become a symbol of the deteriorating urban conditions that still plague so many American cities. The family lived in a ramshackle house on Piggot Street once described as little more than a few sticks with wallpaper attached; Joyner-Kersee still remembers sleeping in the kitchen during the winters, the stove providing the only warmth in a house where the pipes routinely burst from the cold. Jackie's father, who had been a record-setting hurdler and footballer in high school, was forced to spend days away from his family because of his job as a railroad switcher in distant Springfield, Illinois. Mary supplemented her husband's income by working as a nurse's assistant at a nearby nursing home. But the Joyners envisioned a better life for their children and instilled in them the value of hard work and education. "We didn't think we were poor," Jackie once said. "We didn't have a lot, but we knew our mother and father were doing their best."

It was Jackie's maternal grandmother, Ollie Mae Johnson , who named her new granddaughter after then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy because, she said, "Some day this girl will be the first lady of something." As the Joyner family grew, Albert and Mary looked to Jackie as a role model for her sisters and brother. "I felt I was the one who was supposed to set an example," Jackie says, recalling the pressure she always felt to perform well in school and keep away from bad influences. She quickly discovered that sports was a legitimate means to let off steam, especially the running and jumping in track-and-field competitions held at East St. Louis' Mary E. Brown Community Center, just around the corner from her house. "I think she uses athletics to let out energy and emotion," sister Angela says. "If she's in a bad mood or something like that, she'll definitely go to the field." More dangerous outlets, like the alcoholism and drug abuse that often afflict urban centers, were never an option for Jackie. She still remembers her father's difficult, eventually successful, battle with alcoholism, and the time she was looking forward, when she was 11 years old, to a visit from Ollie Mae, only to learn that her grandmother had been killed by her second husband, who returned home one night in a drunken rage carrying a shotgun. "I never got into drugs or drank any type of alcohol," she has said, "because … I saw how it was destroying my family."

Nino Fennoy, Joyner-Kersee's coach at the Mary E. Brown Center, long felt that she was a gifted athlete, even though she trailed the rest of the field in her first race. "When I'm speaking of gifted," he later said, "it's not just the athletic portion. She had the mental attitude … to weather the ups and downs." By the time Jackie began attending Lincoln High School, it was plain to everyone that her future lay with sports. She had won the first of three National Junior Pentathlon championships at 14 and had set a state record for the long jump by the time she graduated from Lincoln in the top 10% of her class. Her sports and academic performance brought several offers of full scholarships from colleges throughout the country, and Jackie finally settled on a basketball scholarship offered by the University of California at Los Angeles, which she entered in 1980 as a history major. Away from home for the first time in her life and living in a one-room apartment, she was once again rescued by sports as her extraordinary athletic prowess enhanced UCLA's track and basketball teams.

It was her competition schedule that prevented her from returning to East St. Louis for the Christmas holidays during her freshman year, despite pleas from her mother. Not long after Christmas, Mary Joyner was stricken by spinal meningitis. By the time Jackie and her brother Al Joyner (who was attending school in Tennessee) arrived back in East St. Louis, Mary had lapsed into a coma, kept alive by machines. Doctors advised the family that there had been severe brain damage from the disease. With the remaining Joyners looking to her for a decision, Jackie knew her mother would have wanted to die peacefully and asked that she be disconnected from her life support. It was Jackie who was the strong one at the funeral, stoically comforting her more outwardly distraught relatives, and it was Jackie who bottled her emotions up for months before a dinner with her teammates in Los Angeles reminded her of the last Christmas dinner with her mother that she had missed. Only then did her grief spill out, and Jackie came to realize how much her mother had contributed to her sports career. "Today I feel that my success is also her success," she says. "I'd never have been able to come this far without her guidance."

During her first year at UCLA, Joyner-Kersee successfully competed in her first Olympic trials, becoming one of three women track-and-field competitors on the American team for the 1980 Games in Moscow. Her hopes were crushed, however, when the U.S. joined several other Western countries in withdrawing from the Games to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Jackie redoubled her efforts in collegiate sports so that, by 1984, her record on the basketball court with the UCLA Lady Bruins averaged 9.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, earning her a berth on the school's NCAA all-conference team. More significantly, she met during her college years the coach who would bring her to the peak of her sports career.

Bob Kersee had joined the UCLA faculty in 1980 and was the assistant coach of the women's track-and-field team when he learned of Jackie's mother's death. Having recently lost his own mother, Kersee offered a sympathetic ear while encouraging Jackie not to lose faith in her own abilities. Kersee, with an eye on the 1984 summer Olympic Games scheduled for Los Angeles, recognized Jackie's potential for the grueling two-day heptathlon, a seven-event competition

which had been developed from the five-event pentathlon by adding the javelin throw and the 800-meter run to the long jump, high jump, shot put, 100-meter hurdle, and 200-meter dash. It was to be offered for the first time at the '84 Games. Kersee became Jackie's personal coach in 1982 and prepared her for the World Track and Field Championships in Helsinki, Finland, to which Jackie traveled in 1983 full of enthusiasm and determination. But she was forced to withdraw from competition because of a pulled hamstring, the first of several such injuries that would plague her career. It was the first time, Jackie later said, that she realized she wasn't an invincible competitor.

Bob Kersee refused to let such negative thinking ruin her chances for the Olympics and adjusted her training to minimize stress on her hamstrings. By the time the summer of 1984 arrived, Jackie was back in top form. She stunned spectators around the globe by winning the silver medal in the heptathlon, missing a gold by only five points. Jackie's brother Al, also coached by Kersee, won a gold medal in the triple high jump, making the 1984 Games the first in which a brother and sister had placed in the medals on the same day. More important, it was the first time an American woman had won a multi-event medal. Fans were even more astonished at her performance when it was revealed that Jackie suffered from asthma, a childhood ailment that had been professionally diagnosed only two years previously and which in her case was triggered, ironically, only by physical exertion. "I try not to use it as an excuse," Jackie told reporters, but admitted that it sometimes prevented her from running her usual four miles a day. "I'll only be up to two miles and I'll get this burning sensation in my chest which makes me feel as if I'm going to die," she said. Jackie knew her asthma would be exacerbated by the Olympic Committee's ban on certain drugs, many of which contained the same ingredients found in Jackie's medication and which would thus disqualify her if found in her bloodstream during random testing. Forced to avoid her medication at a time when she most needed it, Jackie relied on diet and breathing exercises while in competition and was, in fact, hospitalized several times during her Olympic career after collapsing, gasping for air, after a race.

With Bob Kersee's intuition about her abilities amply confirmed at the 1984 Games, Jackie undertook an even more rigorous training schedule under his direction. At the same time, their relationship began to grow beyond the merely professional, and the two began dating shortly after the Los Angeles Games. Kersee and Joyner had discovered a mutual spirituality, with Bob training in his spare time for the ministry and Jackie publicly acknowledging the deep religious faith instilled in her at home by joining a Baptist congregation in 1985. "She always had faith," Bob Kersee has said, "and I think there's where her strength came from." Jackie has observed that her willpower stems from "trying to hear that quiet voice within and to know God is with you." One night, in between pitches at a Houston Astros game in 1985, Kersee turned to her and said, "You know, we get along so well, we might as well be married."

In 1986, just before Jackie traveled to Moscow for the Goodwill Games, she and Bob were wed at the Los Angeles church at which Kersee was an assistant minister, amid predictions that either Jackie's career or the marriage itself would crumble. But the critics were proved wrong in Moscow, where Jackie broke the world record for the heptathlon by gathering 7,148 points, and set a new record for a single high jump, clearing 23 feet. Two years later, in July of 1988, she qualified for the 1988 Olympics by breaking her own heptathlon record at the trials, scooping up 7,215 points. As for her marriage, Jackie pointed out that any disagreements she and Kersee had were strictly sports related and had nothing to do with being husband and wife.

Arriving in Seoul in September, Bob told reporters he was expecting two gold medals and two world records for Jackie, a prediction some thought overly optimistic after the first day of the heptathlon. Although Jackie led her nearest competitor by 181 points, she had hurt her knee in the long jump and had to spend the night with a mild electric current running through her leg to try to relieve the strain. Bob shrugged off the media's low opinion of Jackie's chances of recovery. "They were people who didn't know Jackie," he later said. Complicating matters was the controversy over the use of steroids that plagued that year's summer games after Canadian runner Ben Johnson tested positive for the drug and was disqualified from competition. Jackie bristled when she, too, was forced to submit to testing. "They began lumping the innocent with the guilty," she later said. "They were looking in my direction, and they were looking in the wrong direction, because they were not going to find any positive tests from this young lady."

The next day, Joyner-Kersee set a new world high-jump record at 23'103/4" and won the gold medal for that event, fulfilling half of Bob Kersee's prediction. She met the other half later in the day, when her time in the 800-meter set another world record and put her total points for the heptathlon at 7,291, earning Jackie her second gold medal and making her the first woman to win back-to-back heptathlon medals in two consecutive Olympics.

As with the '84 Games, the name Joyner was a prominent one in Seoul that year. Brother Al's wife, runner Florence Griffith Joyner (also coached by Bob), found gold on the track as well. Jackie and Florence, in fact, won or shared five-sixths of America's gold medals in woman's track and field at Seoul, and each of them broke at least one world record. But Jackie firmly denied rumors of friction between herself and her more flamboyant sister-in-law, whose alluring outfits and long, bright-red nails attracted a good deal of media attention and comment. Florence's stylishness, she said, was good for the sport, attracting viewers who would otherwise bypass track-and-field events; and Jackie credited Florence with helping her overcome her asthma by serving as her training partner. "We're not competitive," Jackie said. "The media try and make it look that way, partly because we're family."

Now firmly established as a world-famous sports celebrity, Joyner-Kersee found herself spending six days out of every week on the road, speaking to school groups and civic gatherings and appearing on television chat shows and on the front covers of national magazines. She signed several lucrative product endorsement contracts, using a large portion of her earnings to fund programs to alleviate what she called "my two causes"—poverty and homelessness. In her hometown of East St. Louis, she opened the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Community Foundation as a center for sports, recreation, and self-development programs for poor children, and contributed $40,000 to help reopen the Mary E. Brown Community Center, which had been closed for lack of money in 1982. In Santa Monica, California, she funded an anti-drug program called New Start; and on being named one of several winners of the Essence Award for outstanding achievement in 1988, Jackie donated her $1,000 in prize money to a fellow winner to help with his educational expenses. In 1989, with the financial support of two of her commercial sponsors, Jackie and Bob took a group of children from East St. Louis to New York City for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. For many of the youngsters, it was the first time they had ever left East St. Louis. "There were people, when I was little, reaching into their pockets trying … to make things possible for me," Jackie says. "I feel that in return I can do that for the next generation. I hope I can inspire someone to take the right path and be successful." Her generosity can be of a more personal nature, too. "She was there when I needed her," remembers runner Valerie Brisco-Hooks , herself a three-time gold medalist whom Jackie helped through a particularly painful divorce; and Fred Thompson, Jackie's assistant coach at the 1988 Games, once told an interviewer, "I don't know a person in the world who has a negative thing to say about her. She's a lady. And it's not just on her lips—she goes out there and does things." Bob Kersee puts it more simply. "She's just good," he says.

Despite her demanding public-speaking schedule, Joyner-Kersee kept to her training regime and announced her intention of going to her third Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. But at the World Track championships in Tokyo in 1991, she was seized by a painful cramp at the turn in the 200-meter dash and fell. As with her experience in Helsinki in 1983, it took Bob Kersee months to rebuild Jackie's confidence and toughen her up for Barcelona, especially since the two of them knew Jackie would be facing stiff competition in the heptathlon from Germany's Sabine Braun and the Russian track star Irina Belova . After the 100-meter hurdle and the high jump, Jackie seemed poised to top her own world record set in Seoul. But she faltered at the shot put, falling some five feet short of her expected distance, and at the end of the 200-meter dash, found herself trailing Braun and Belova in overall points.

Braun, Sabine (1965—)

German heptathlon champion. Born in Germany on June 19, 1965.

Sabine Braun won the Olympic bronze medal in the heptathlon in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992.

Belova, Irina (1968—)

Russian heptathlon champion. Born in the Soviet Union on March 27, 1968.

In 1992, Irina Belova won the Olympic silver medal in the heptathlon in Barcelona, Spain.

On the eve of the heptathlon's second day, Bob reminded Jackie of something she'd once told reporters after her 1988 triumph. "I have a lot of fun," she had said at the time. "I'm not out there to break any records. When you focus on breaking records, you put pressure on yourself, and that can spoil your performance." The next day, Jackie held her placing of the previous day by clearing 23 feet in the high jump, and edged ahead of Braun and Belova in the long jump with a distance that won her the bronze medal for that event. Then, in an impressive show of strength late in the competition, Jackie surged to the top with a 147'7" javelin throw and a time of 2:11:78 in the 800-meter, giving her a total of 7,044 points. Although it was below the record she had set in Seoul, it was enough to defeat Braun and Belova and win a third Olympic heptathlon gold medal. Statisticians noted that Joyner-Kersee was now responsible for six of the seven times the women's heptathlon had broken the 7,000 point mark. Former Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner caught up with Jackie during her victory lap and spoke for many by calling her "the greatest multi-event athlete ever, man or woman."

Not content with three Olympic victories, Joyner-Kersee decided to aim for one final stretch, the 1996 summer games in Atlanta. Against the advice of friends who tried to convince her she had earned the right to set more modest goals, Jackie appeared in full force at the 1994 U.S. Olympic Festival in Illinois in July. Her performance let the world know she was intent on at least one more Olympic medal. Jackie's time in the 400-meter sprint and the 1600-meter relay earned her team a bronze medal at the Festival, while she broke the American women's record in the 100-meter hurdle with a time of 12:69—all this despite an asthma attack just before the relay, when Jackie confessed she had been "wheezing pretty hard" but decided to run anyway.

But when the Atlanta Games began, it seemed that Joyner-Kersee's friends had been at least partially right. Jackie—now 34 years old and competing against much younger athletes—was forced out of the heptathlon by another severely strained hamstring, and she and Bob gave serious thought to withdrawing completely from competition. But the idea was soon dismissed. "I knew the pain she was feeling in her leg," Bob said. "I knew she could quit anytime. But I knew she had a seven-meter jump in her." Once again, Bob's prediction proved true, although it took all of Jackie's willpower and determination to walk out on the field for the long jump. She jumped exactly seven meters and won her sixth Olympic medal, a bronze, for her effort. "This was a really tough Olympics," she told a press conference just after the Atlanta Games ended. Formally announcing her retirement from Olympic competition, Joyner-Kersee admitted her own surprise at the difficulty she experienced. "I never dreamed it would be like this," she said. "The bronze medal meant a lot to me."

Although universally acknowledged as the finest American track-and-field athlete of her generation and as a pioneer in women's sports, Jackie Joyner-Kersee's retirement by no means indicates she intends to live off those accolades. She continues to compete professionally in long jump competitions around the country; and in September of 1996, she announced that she would be returning to the basketball court by signing a one-year contract with the Richmond Rage in the new, all-women's American Basketball League. Her schedule of public appearances and charity work is as busy as ever, and in 1998 she attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center in East St. Louis. Most important, her marriage to Bob Kersee remains a strong and rewarding one. "I think it's really great for me to have someone like Bobby, who understands and doesn't interfere with what I'm trying to do," she says. Her husband, now a minister with his own congregation, is equally complimentary. "There's no period at the end of her sentence," Kersee says. "Jackie is just to be continued."


Cain, Joy Duckett. "The Jackie Nobody Knows," in Essence. Vol. 20, no. 4. August 1989.

"Can World's Greatest Woman Athlete Cash in on Olympic Gold?," in Ebony. Vol. 44, no. 6. April 1989.

Gardner, Ralph Jr. "Cosmo Talks to Jackie Joyner Kersee," in Cosmopolitan. Vol. 206, no. 6. June 1989.

Harrington, Geri. Jackie Joyner-Kersee: Champion Athlete. NY: Chelsea House Publishing, 1995.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1993.

Moore, Kenny. "Dash to Glory," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 77, no. 6. August 10, 1992.

——. "Proving Her Point," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 69, no. 15. October 3, 1988.

——. "A Special Fire," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 69, no. 16. October 10, 1988.

——. "Our Woman in Moscow," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 65. July 21, 1986.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

suggested reading:

Joyner-Kersee, Jackie, with Sonja Steptoe. A Kind of Grace: The Autobiography of the World's Greatest Female Athlete. NY: Warner, 1997.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York