Last weekend, Jackie Joyner-Kersee watched the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi from her West St. Louis County home with a smile on her face. Come to think of it, there isn't much of anything she does without a smile on her face! And why not? She became a six-time Olympic medalist (3 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze medals in heptathlon and long jump) as a member of Team U.S.A. in four different Olympic games (Los Angeles, 1984; Seoul, 1988; Barcelona, 1992; and Atlanta, 1996). She was named by Sports Illustrated as the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century. Indeed, she has had a lot to smile about. “I realize I've been blessed,” she says. “There are times when I have bad days, but the smile helps me keep things in perspective—and really recognize my blessings.”
We talk as we walk through The Lodge Des Peres. There is a little kids’ basketball league game going on in the gym, and JJK watches the action with a wide grin. “Even when I was running, I would smile a little bit because it relieves that tension and puts you in a happy place,” she says.
Joyner-Kersee has an incredible story of accomplishment and success, but it could have turned out a lot different. She grew up in East St. Louis on Piggott Avenue in a ‘shotgun’ house and a very poor neighborhood. But in that house, her parents raised two future Olympians: Jackie and her brother, Al, who won the gold medal in the triple jump at the ’84 games.
There obviously was something very special in that family. “I was always taught to work hard, and whatever your goals are, stick with them,” JJK says. “If you decide you’re going to go straight, then stay straight; because if you choose to go right or choose to go left—and that wasn’t part of the plan—that’s when you go down the wrong path.” She stayed on the right path; got a full athletic scholarship to UCLA, where she starred in basketball and track; and went on to Olympic greatness and worldwide acclaim. But she always came back home.
JJK started her namesake foundation and the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis. One of the Center’s programs that she is personally involved in is called Love and Forgiveness. “I do a workshop with young girls so they learn to love the skin that they are in,” she explains. “I want to meet them where they are and see if I can help them by sharing my journey, and all my ups and downs.” The foundation and the Center also are involved with helping the kids of East St. Louis succeed in school. JJK uses a comparison between being ‘coachable’ as an athlete and being ‘teachable’ as a young student. “If you are in the classroom, you have to be teachable. It starts at home with respect and being able to listen; then at school, the teacher becomes the ‘coach,’ ” she explains. “As an athlete, I never separated the two: If I’m going to be a great athlete, I need to be a great student and a great person. It starts with work ethic, integrity and self-responsibility.”
Joyner-Kersee still is a part of the Olympic scene, and very much in tune with what the Sochi athletes are experiencing. It’s hard to even imagine what it would be like to walk into the Olympic stadium as a member of Team U.S.A, much less standing on the podium wearing the gold medal. JJK calls it the greatest feeling in the world. “The memories are tears of joy. Once they pulled the flag up and the national anthem played, all I could think of at the top of the podium was all the people who helped get me there—that’s what I remember the most.”
JJK also remembers some sadness in those moments because she was thinking about her mother, who passed away three years before her children became Olympic champions. “I always told Mom I was going to go to the Olympics,” she recalls. “She never could believe it, but she said, OK, if you go I’m going to come see you, I’m going to catch the bus.” Joyner-Kersee chuckles when she thinks of that moment; and, of course, that smile stays on her face.
A native St. Louisan, Paul Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. His Paul Brown Media specializes in public and media relations.