Heptathlete talks staying balanced

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the renowned Olympic heptathelete could teach people a lot about perseverance, patience and staying balanced.

Dubbed the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated, Joyner-Kersee got her start in East St. Louis, Ill. By the end of her career in the heptathlon and long jump events she had won six Olympic medals (three gold, one silver and two bronze) and four world champion titles over four consecutive Olympic Games.

Joyner-Kersee was the first woman in history to earn more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon and today, more than 20 years later, she still holds the world heptathlon record of 7,291 points, a news release said. She continues to hold the Olympic and national records in the long jump and her 1994 performance in the long jump remains the second longest in history.

She will be the featured speaker during “An Evening with: Jackie Joyner-Kersee” at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute Distinguished Lecture Series at the Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center.

Tickets are $10 and admission is free to students. Tickets are available at the Wagner Noel box office.

Joyner-Kersee said she will share her story and hopes her anecdotes connect with the audience.

“For me, everything is basically around never giving up and how we as the individual hold the key to our own successes. Then it’s how we define those successes, because when one goal is attained” we should set another, she said in a phone interview.

She also advocates commitment and consistent hard work.

Following her retirement, she founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation, aimed at encouraging youth in her hometown to play sports. In 2007, Joyner-Kersee helped establish Athletes for Hope along with such sports heroes as Andre Agassi, Muhammad Ali and Mia Hamm.

Athletes for Hope’s website said its mission is to educate, encourage and assist athletes in their efforts to contribute to community and charitable causes, increase public awareness of those efforts and to inspire others to do the same.

She also established the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Community Center in East St. Louis. Joyner-Kersee said some youngsters have never seen her compete, but once they put her and the community center name together, their eyes light up.

Although she doesn’t still train for track and field events, she still works out.

“I have a community center that I built in my hometown of East St. Louis working with young people and families …,” she said in a phone interview. “Being active and wellness will always be a part of my life with me being an asthmatic. … For me, I just think that it’s important that you find what works for you. Do I miss it? Yes. But I understand that the level I competed at I gave it my all.”

Coming up through a community center, Joyner-Kersee said one of the age group coaches provided opportunities for girls whereas other coaches did not. Her motivation came from having fun and knowing that there were caring adults out there volunteering their time.

East St. Louis was a tough place to grow up, but Joyner-Kersee thought it was normal. The population has declined over the years, but the surrounding area is booming. She added that it’s always been important to her to be in the community where she grew up.

“I know I could be in Los Angeles doing a lot of things, but I’d rather be here to try to continue to see my community center flourish” and give youngsters a place where they can be safe, learn, have the opportunity to be creative, go on to school and find a way to return and contribute.

“This will outlive me, so it’s important for me to build a solid foundation,” Joyner-Kersee said.

Her advice to young people, and student athletes especially, is that they have a chance to explore many opportunities on and off the field. She said they should be patient with the direction they’re trying to go in life.

“It’s the same way in the athletic arena. You might see yourself as a great sprinter, but the coach might want you to try hurdling. In life, the commitment you make is a commitment you make to yourself. It starts with hard work. No matter what field, what arena, you’ve got to be willing to work hard all the time. A lot of times you may feel like it’s not paying off. … You hopefully gain wisdom. That wisdom will allow you stay stronger in your knowledge … and you’ll find a way,” Joyner-Kersee said.

Joyner-Kersee said she never hurdled in high school and didn’t throw a javelin.

During the summer, her coach would place her and her peers in those events.

“You go from one event to the next. It taught you how to find balance without knowing that’s what was happening,” she said.

That experienced helped her grow as a person and an athlete.

It also taught her patience and how to persevere. She also learned that she had a passion for all the events she was in, even if she wasn’t good at all of them.

Being on the Olympic medal podium she said was an incredible feeling.

“… It is the greatest feeling in the world, not only for me but also for the people who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Coach told me I had the potential and all I had to do was believe …,” Joyner-Kersee said.

If You Go
  • What: John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute Distinguished Lecture Series presents Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
  • When: 7 p.m. Tuesday.
  • Where: Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center, 1310 N. Farm to Market Road 1788 in Midland.
  • Tickets: $10 and free to students.