Also known as: Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee, Mrs. Bob Kersee, Jacqueline Joyner, Jacqueline Joyner Kersee, Jackie Joyner, Kersee Joyner
Track and Field Athlete
Birth: March 3, 1962
Source: St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. 5 vols., St. James Press, 2000.
Born in East St. Louis, Illinois, and raised in a house she remembers as "little more than paper and sticks," Jackie Joyner-Kersee eventually became known throughout the world as one of the finest female athletes of all time. The winner of six Olympic medals, three of them gold, a record-holder in both the multi-event heptathlon (the female version of the decathlon) and the long jump, and a world-class basketball player, Joyner-Kersee stands as an example of how strength and determination can triumph over adversity. An African-American, she has battled racial discrimination and gender bias and triumphed in the male-dominated field of athletic competition, despite her personal battle with a debilitating medical condition.
Born on March 3, 1962, Joyner-Kersee was one of four children born to Al Joyner and his wife, Mary. Her brother, Al Joyner, is also an athlete who has achieved Olympic greatness, winning the gold in the triple jump in 1984; he would marry runner Florence "FloJo" Griffith in 1987. An active child, Joyner-Kersee joined the track team at East St. Louis's Lincoln High School, where she benefited from having some excellent coaches and excelled at the long jump. However, her performance on the basketball court was what got her noticed, and after graduating in 1980, Joyner-Kersee was able to attend the University of California, Los Angeles on a basketball scholarship.
At UCLA Joyner-Kersee first met Bob Kersee, a controversial coach who would have a great impact not only on her career but on her personal life as well. Her college years proved to be challenging as, under Kersee's direction, the young athlete perfected her skills and ultimately won the NCAA heptathlon two years in a row, as well as walking away with the 1982 USA championship. The injury that would dog Joyner-Kersee's career—a pulled hamstring—first made itself known as she prepared to compete in the 1983 World Championships in Helinski, Finland, and she was forced to withdraw. She was also diagnosed with an asthmatic condition requiring constant medication. However, Joyner-Kersee's medical setbacks were nothing compared to learning of the tragic death of her 37-year-old mother, Mary, who had been the young woman's inspiration. While Joyner-Kersee's grief momentarily threatened to derail her academic and athletic career, she rallied, as she had from each of her medical setbacks, and went on to pursue her dreams. Graduating with a major in history in the top ten percent of her class from UCLA, she was also named the school's athlete of the year in 1985, and won the Broderick Cup for being chosen the country's most outstanding female collegiate athlete.
Her first year out of college would prove to be a momentous year for Joyner-Kersee. She and her coach were married in January of 1986, and Kersee continued to coach his wife to a heptathlon victory at that year's Goodwill Games in Moscow. Setting the world record of 7,148 points for the event during the Games, Joyner-Kersee competed in other events across the country, winning the Jesse Owens Award for outstanding performance in track and field that same year.
Joyner-Kersee made outstanding performances in a number of events during 1987, including the Mobil Indoor Grand Prix (winner, women's overall), the Pan American Games (winner, long jump), and the World Championships, held in Rome, where she equalled the world record of 24 feet 5 1/2 inches in the long jump. She suffered her first major asthma attack after returning from the Rome Games, and doctors prescribed the short, periodic use of prednisone, a steroid banned in athletic competition, in addition to her regular medication. Because Joyner-Kersee resisted becoming reliant upon drugs and stopped taking any medications as soon as she felt better, her condition worsened over the coming years, and during 1993's spring games she would be forced to compete wearing an allergen-filtering mask. Meanwhile, the 1987 Jesse Owens Award would once again go to Joyner-Kersee for her outstanding track and field performance that year.
Joyner-Kersee continued to break records over the following decade. In 1988's Olympic Games she took the gold in both the heptathlon and long jump, and equaled the U.S. record for 100-meter hurdles. Sidelined by a painful injury to her right hamstring during the heptathlon's 200-meter run at Tokyo's 1991 World Championships, a resolute Joyner-Kersee worked her way back into top form, taking the gold for the heptathlon and the bronze for the long jump at the following year's Olympic Games at Barcelona.
Joyner-Kersee set the U.S. record for indoor 50 hurdles before losing the heptathlon event at the Olympics for the first time in her career in 1996. Despite the recurrent hamstring injury that forced her to withdraw from the event, she still managed to win the Olympic bronze in the long jump while in Atlanta. She also renewed her love affair with basketball, joining the Richmond, Virginia, Rage and playing in the newly formed American Basketball League for women.
Her performance at the 1998 Goodwill Games held in New York City would signal Joyner-Kersee's retirement from athletic competition. And what a performance it was. Ending the two-day, seven-event heptathlon with an outstanding performance in the 800-meters, she took the title with 7,291 points, breaking her own world's record set in 1986. Her Goodwill victory was Joyner-Kersee's 25th win out of the 36 multi-event competitions she had entered during her career.
Joyner-Kersee continues to work to encourage young people to improve their lives, largely through her work with the Joyner-Kersee Boys and Girls Club in East St. Louis. She told a reporter for PR Newswire, "I will be there as often as I can, hopefully every other day. I don't want the Center to just be my namesake, but to be a center that I am very active in. I want to be there for the kids."