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The first lady of track and field

Beauty, grace and speed
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

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Sept. 24, 1988 -- Jackie Joyner-Kersee came to the Olympics in Seoul with the expectation of not only winning the heptathlon, but of breaking her own world record. After yesterday, though she led by 181 points, she was a disappointing 103 points behind her record pace and also had strained her left patellar tendon.

"After the first day, people wrote off the world record," said Bob Kersee, her husband and coach. "They were people who didn't know Jackie."

In today's long jump, Joyner-Kersee soared 23 feet, 10 inches. It was worth a heptathlon world record 1,264 points and moved her to within 11 points of her record pace. However, she gave most of it back in the javelin. Instead of throwing around her usual 160 feet, her best was just 149 feet, 10 inches. That cost her 86 points. "It was disgusting," she said.

To break the record, she needed to run a 2:13.67 in the 800 meters, her least favorite event. Her best time, set six years earlier, was 2:09.32. "I knew I was in 2:10 shape," she said.

She did even better. Though she finished fifth, her time of 2:08.51 enabled her to achieve her goal and break her world record with 7,291 points.

Odds and ends

  • Jackie's mother Mary was 19 and her father Alfred was a 17-year-old high school junior when she was born. Alfred skipped lunch at school the next day to see his daughter at the hospital.
  • On the back of Jackie's first baby picture, Mary wrote, "A star is born."
  • During the winters when Jackie was growing up in East St. Louis, Ill., it was not uncommon for the water pipes to freeze in their home. The family had to heat water for baths in kettles on the kitchen stove.
  • One of the major influences in Jackie's life is Nino Fennoy, her track coach at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis. He has known her since she was nine and started coaching her when she was 11.
  • As a 5-foot-10 senior, she averaged 19.6 points and 16.4 rebounds in leading the girls' basketball team to a 31-0 record and the Class 2A championship in Illinois. In her three seasons, the team went 86-5.
  • Her brother Al, the oldest of the four Joyner children, didn't have a big brother. "I had Jackie," he says. "She was my idol."
  • Jackie cried when she received her silver medal for the heptathlon at the 1984 Olympics. Al, who had just won the triple jump, went to console her, but she said, "I'm not crying because I lost. I'm crying because you won."
  • After redshirting in 1983-84 to concentrate on her heptathlon training for the 1984 Olympics, she led UCLA's basketball team to a 20-10 record in 1984-85. Jackie was the team's top rebounder, averaging 9.3, and scored 12.7 points a game.
  • In 1986, Joyner-Kersee won the Sullivan Award as the outstanding amateur United States athlete.
  • She was selected the USOC Sportswoman of the Year in 1986 and 1987.
  • In 1987, she was voted the Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.
  • Joyner-Kersee is the only woman to win gold in a multi-event (the heptathlon) and in a specialty event (long jump) in the same Olympics. She accomplished the feat in 1988.
  • After winning the hepathlon that year, Joyner-Kersee was accused of using steroids to improve her performance by a Brazilian male middle-distance runner, Joaquim Cruz. She denied the accusation and has always tested negative for drugs. Cruz later apologized for the remarks.
  • Joyner-Kersee is the only woman to win two Olympic heptathlons.
  • She owns a St. Louis-based sports marketing firm, Elite International, where she is a registered agent, and makes speaking appearances.
  • Her foundation helped raise money to build the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center in her old hometown of East St. Louis.

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