Heroes: Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Heroes: Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Heroes: Jackie Joyner-Kersee

As the World Readies For This Year’s Summer Olympics in London, the Gold Medalist Reminisces About Her Own Undefeated Records, Wheaties Fame, and Her Legendary Sister-in-Law, Flo-Jo

As the World Readies For This Year’s Summer Olympics in London, the Gold Medalist Reminisces About Her Own Undefeated Records, Wheaties Fame, and Her Legendary Sister-in-Law, Flo-Jo

Photography: Suzy Gorman

Text: Derek Blasberg

Jackie Joyner-Kersee is an athlete of another strata. In 1988, she established a world record in the heptathlon with a staggering 7,291 points and a mere five days later set an Olympic long jump record, both of which are still unmatched to this day. She has represented the United States four times at the Summer Olympics, accruing a glamorous assortment of medals: three gold, two bronze, and one silver in four different events. And while her physical prowess is nothing short of legendary, put Joyner-Kersee in a pair of high heels and she’s prone to girlish teetering—and subsequent laughter—rather than long, cheetahlike strides. In fact, the athlete-turned-activist, now a mentor and community leader in her native St. Louis, laughs regularly and easily. Just don’t mention the thought of anyone breaking her records.

Tell the truth: do you still keep an eye on your records, and do you secretly hope no one beats them? 

JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE Well, I like to think of it as following the sport. [Laughs] I’m definitely aware of my records and I’m always looking at the potential of athletes who have the ability to break them. It’s been 26 years since my first Olympics, but when you have one of these records and you’ve done it, the thought definitely crosses your mind.

You still have the highest record for heptathlon points scored, and you’re the first heptathlete ever to achieve consecutive Olympic wins.

JJK People always say records are made to be broken. And I agree with that. Just not mine!

Sports Illustrated voted you the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century. What does that mean to you? 

JJK I wasn’t aware of it until it came out, so it was an honor and a total surprise. When you’re competing, and actually doing those things, you don’t think of accolades. You have tunnel vision.

Where do you keep your medals?

JJK At home, but I do a lot of school appearances, so I travel with them.

Do you let other people wear them, or are you superstitious about that?

JJK No, not me. A bunch of people have had them on. I just remind them that you can’t take claim to that sort of honor until you have earned it. Since I left the sport, I’ve done a lot of community work, mentoring programs, and a lot in health and wellness.

I heard that you like to speak to students. What do you tell them?

JJK I speak from a sense of strength, which comes from sports. I want them to see the balance. Regardless of what field you’re in, you have to have goals you are willing to work toward. The twist in there, for me, is health and wellness. Being able to take care of oneself is important.

How did you balance your life?

JJK I was fortunate because my husband was my coach. But you really have to carve out time for what makes you feel good. When I was competing I knew I always wanted to do community work, so I would do what I had to do athletically, and then I would find time to visit a school.

How did you get involved with sports in East St. Louis?

JJK East St. Louis is always going to be home for me. It was a solid foundation, but in the beginning I was not one of the fastest girls. In fact, I finished last in my first ever competition [at the age of nine].

Jackie Joyner-Kersee finished last?

JJK Dead last. When I was that young I wanted to be on a relay team with my friends, so I had to be good enough to be in the four. There’s a park on the East Side, and my goal was to be able to run around the park without stopping. When I could do that, I knew I had improved, and then it was on to the next challenge. What I stress to young people is that it’s not where you start, it’s where you’re trying to get.

You grew up in a tough family. Did playing sports help to relieve some of those stresses?

JJK Yes. My grandmother was shot and killed in Chicago by her husband. He came home one day and…I saw a lot of drugs and violence growing up, and I saw how it could tear a family apart. When I was little I didn’t know I had this athletic gift to go and do the things I was going to do, but sports provided me an opportunity to learn a lot about myself and who I am. I was able to set goals, go to college, and see there was a better life out there.

Your thought process was if you can get a gold medal, you can keep it together.

JJK Exactly. You learn to take the good with the bad. Growing up I learned not to take anything for granted. I don’t underestimate anyone. Even when my numbers say that I’m the best, I still work as if I’m at the bottom of the pile.

You were on the covers of a Wheaties box, Jackie!

JJK Yeah, that was awesome.

Any other highlights from when you were still competing?

JJK Definitely Wheaties! I also worked with the President and Mrs. Obama to help bring the Olympics to Chicago. And I had the opportunity to ride on Air Force One with Bill Clinton. I’ve seen the world, and I’ve met people from all walks of life. I’ve had a lot of moments that I just can’t believe.

How has the sport changed since you started?

JJK I think female athletes are more respected and appreciated for their great talents. Something else, which is new, is that girls who appreciate fashion can be taken seriously.

Now athletes design their own fashion lines.

JJK It’s nice to still be taken seriously and take care of the way you look. In my day, if you came out there wearing lipstick, someone would think, Oh, I’m going to beat this cutie-pie.

What about your sister-in-law Florence Griffith Joyner’s legendary nails?

JJK Florence would do all of our nails, even when we were going to school together at UCLA. She married my brother, who she met through me. It’s funny: Florence and I went to UCLA together, and [my brother] Al went to Arkansas State. I went to visit him and showed him a picture of Florence, and he said, “Oh, that’s the girl I’m going to marry.” I said, “No you’re not.” But he did.

Did Florence try and get you to grow your nails long?

JJK No, she knew better than that! I loved fashion, but I was much more subtle.

I see you have a very bright pink nail polish today.

JJK It’s a classic pink. This is not on Flo-Jo’s level, trust me!

Credits: Makeup and hair Carmen Currie


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