Jackie Joyner-Kersee Didn’t Start Out As Star Athlete

By Luaine Lee
Tribune News Service

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Superstar athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee shares her amazing journey over the past 3 decades. She also shares a little bit about her latest project, a new inspirational PBS KIDS’ series called “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum.”


When Jackie Joyner-Kersee was 18 she lost her mother suddenly to meningitis. That same year she’d earned an athletic scholarship to UCLA, which meant leaving her hometown in Illinois and her family.

But that move, as difficult as it was, proved the making of Joyner-Kersee. She went on to compete in track and field events in four different Olympics, winning three gold medals, one silver and two bonzes.

In 1984 she became the first participant to earn 7,000 points in the heptathlon, a competition that included the 200-meter run, 800-meter run and the 100-meter hurdles. She is considered by many to be the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.

She accomplished all that while suffering from asthma, a condition she didn’t even realize she had until she went to college.

“I had a problem early on, we just didn’t know it was asthma,” she says seated on a beige couch in the drafty hall of a hotel here.

“My mom would say, ‘Stop running around so much, go into the house and sit down and rest up.’ … So when I got to school, I was having a real difficult time with my breathing. And so, in my mind, I was thinking I was only good in Illinois and not in California, I’m afraid they’re going to take away my scholarship,” she recalls.

She was sent to a specialist who discovered that she was allergic to a shopping list of allergens including mold, dust, fresh cut grass, peanuts and seafood. “Every Friday we would have fish not knowing,” she laughs. “I thought I would grow out of it. I’m still living with it.”

While that may have deterred some, it only made Joyner-Kersee more determined. Today, at 58, she’s sleek and elegant in a geometric pink and maroon blouse and black pants. She still works out under the watchful eye of her husband, Bob Kersee, who has been her track coach since her college years. But these days her routine is far less rigorous

“I believe in trying to be fit for life,” she says. “I do a lot of walking, work out with friends of mine … I try to get four miles in under an hour or on the treadmill. I try to do 4.0 under an hour, then I do a series of different exercises and later on try to go to the gym and do some basics.”

She created a community center in her hometown to encourage young people to follow their dreams like she did, or as she puts it, “helping them to pull out the best in them.”

Next Monday she’s helping to pull out the best in them by accepting a new challenge as an animated character in PBS KIDS’ series, “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum.”(The show follows young Xavier and his companions who are met with a problem and must go back in time to seek the advice of various historical characters. In this one-hour special, “I am Madame President,” Joyner-Kersee shares some of the wisdom she earned by being the first woman ever to accomplish a variety of Herculean feats.

Though today she’s celebrated in the history books, Joyner-Kersee wasn’t always a winner. “I didn’t know I was blessed with an athletic gift. I wasn’t one of the best girls,” she says.

“I finished last in my first competition. And I just said to myself, ‘If I could improve a tenth of a second or a half an inch, if I’m jumping, that would pay off.’

“So for me that’s how it all started. When I hit 14, I saw the Olympics on television and saw people doing what I was trying to do. I loved playing games. I was very into academics. Education was really a foundation for us because at that time girls doing sports didn’t even appreciate their talent, so you didn’t even know that the opportunity even existed. So being able to see someone on television doing what I was trying to do really made it possible.”

She says she was good at setting goals and realizing that things didn’t happen overnight. And once she made up her mind, she never wavered. “Failure wasn’t an option,” she says.

“I couldn’t see things as being a failure, I had to really see it for what it is and what it is I have control over, and what do I need to do to see it through? And I understand that everything is not going to be smooth sailing and that there is a lesson to be learned from every situation that I found myself in,” she says.

“When I think about quitting or giving up, I always think of my competitors and I’ll think
‘OK, if they can do one more, I can do one more.’ That’s always running through my mind.”

She says her mother, a nurse’s aide who married at 14, helped solidify her resolve. “Because my mother was teaching me a lot at a very young age that I didn’t know; didn’t know that she was. I thought my mom was extremely strict. I had to read the newspaper so I would know what was gong on in the community. She didn’t want me to think that I was immune to any of that, to understand that not everyone is your friend. Don’t take anything from strangers, and always earn your way.”

Joyner-Kersee’s husband of 34 years still coaches her on the field, but at home he’s just a husband, she says. “He has to take the trash out on Friday and there’s things he has to do. And every time I might disagree with him at home, he doesn’t come back on the field and say, ‘You’ve got a mile to do!’ No,” she laughs, “field and home, it’s a big separation.”

(Luaine Lee is a California-based correspondent who covers entertainment for Tribune News Service.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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