Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jackie Joyner-Kersee olympics
Eric Risberg/AP

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Olympic Athlete

February 16, 2011
by Shannon Firth
Six-time Olympic medal winner Jackie Joyner-Kersee is considered one of the greatest female athletes of the 20th century. Admired for her strength and speed as well as her character Jackie continues to inspire young athletes everywhere through her work as a mentor and motivational speaker.

Jackie Joyner’s Early Days

Jackie Joyner was born on March 3, 1962, the second of Mary and Alfred Joyner’s four children. The Joyners were young teenagers when they married, and strangers frequently mistook Jackie and her mother as a pair for sisters, Jackie said in a 2010 PBS interview with Renee Shaw.

Alfred took odd jobs to support his family, before finding a position with a railroad company. Mary, a homemaker-cum-drill sergeant, was described as “traditional,” enforcing strict household rules, perhaps because of her husband’s frequent trips.

Jackie’s childhood home was “little more than wallpaper and sticks with four small bedrooms,” according to ESPN. Sometimes lunch was a mayonnaise sandwich and sometimes the house had no heat, said Jackie in her PBS interview. Despite being poor, Jackie said there was still “a lot of fun and a lot of love” in her home.

Growing up in the ‘60s in East St. Louis, Ill., Jackie and her siblings filled empty potato-chip bags with sand from the nearby Mary Brown Youth Center, poured it out onto the grass beside their porch and tamped it down to make a landing pit. 

“Through a fluttering porch-side window shade, enjoying the sounds of plotting, their father heard 14-year-old Jackie announce one evening that someday she was going to be in the Olympic Games,” a Time magazine article reported in 1988.

Joyner-Kersee’s Athletic Achievements

After graduating from Lincoln High School, Jackie accepted a basketball scholarship to UCLA. In her freshman year, Jackie’s mother caught meningitis suddenly and died at the age of 37. When Jackie returned to campus, Bob Kersee, the university’s assistant track coach, comforted her. He became her coach and over time their professional relationship evolved into a romantic one; the couple married in 1986.

Bob Kersee helped Jackie train for the heptathalon, a two-day, seven-event competition that includes high and long jumps, hurdles, shot put, javelin and a series of sprints. At her first Olympic competition in 1984, Joyner-Kersee placed second in the heptathalon. Four years later, she took first place, setting a world record of 7,291 points, and also won gold in the long jump.

In her career, Joyner-Kersee won three gold medals, one silver and two bronze in four Olympics between 1984 and 1996. In 1998, she competed in her final heptathlon at the Goodwill Games in Uniondale, N.Y., outperforming second-place DeDee Nathan by 23 points. “At the finish she fell into her husband's arms and wept. ‘I can't believe it's over,’” wrote Tim Layden in Sports Illustrated For Women.

She was named The Associated Press Athlete of the Year in 1987. Twelve years later, Sports Illustrated For Women named her the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century. Finally, in 2004, Joyner-Kersee took her place in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

The Rest of the Story

In 2000, Jackie opened The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center near the Mary Brown Youth Center where she spent her youth. Joyner-Kersee felt it was important to return to her home town as a role model for the youth there. “I'm saying to them that I am a product of East St. Louis. I come from this community,” Joyner-Kersee told PBS’ Tavis Smiley in a 2004 radio interview.

Joyner-Kersee gives motivational speeches around the country, and because she struggled with the condition herself, gives lectures to raise awareness about the seriousness of asthma.

In 2007, Joyner-Kersee received the International Olympic Committee’s Women and Sport Trophy “for her active role in the advancement of girls through sport.”

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