Jackie Joyner-Kersee was at her athletic peak in 1988 when she won Olympic gold medals in both the long jump and heptathlon — setting a record with 7,291 points in the latter event that still stands today.
As impressive as those achievements are, though, Joyner-Kersee did something the same year that is perhaps even more enduring by starting the Jackie-Joyner Kersee Foundation in her hometown of East St. Louis, Ill.
Three decades later, her success in both areas brought her to Minneapolis. Her foundation is working with the Twin Cities-based Tony Sanneh Foundation on some shared programs, and details were ironed out Thursday in conjunction with her appearance at the Minneapolis Convention Center as a featured speaker at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual research conference.
Joyner-Kersee, 56, started her foundation when she was just 26, and at a time when such endeavors were not as commonplace for athletes.
“I just knew I wanted to give back to my community. Every year I was looking for ways to support ongoing organizations. A lot of times when my parents didn’t have money, there were organizations that made things possible for me,” Joyner-Kersee said in an interview before Thursday’s program. “I didn’t have a building yet, but I didn’t need a building to help people.”
By 1996 — the same year Joyner-Kersee competed in her fourth and final Olympics, all of which earned her at least one medal — the foundation broke ground on a building that opened in 2000. Joyner-Kersee had been living in California but moved back to East St. Louis for the groundbreaking and there she remains.
“When I built the center, I wanted the young people to see me,” she said.
If that seems like a lot to juggle in the midst of a career that earned her the distinction as the best female athlete of the 20th century from Sports Illustrated — and even now as she balances her foundation work with numerous speaking engagements — it is perhaps instructive to deconstruct Joyner-Kersee’s personality and even her signature event.
The heptathlon is a grueling two-day competition with seven different track and field events. It’s a mental grind — one Joyner-Kersee admits she wasn’t ready for early in her career — but it offers great rewards. When it is mentioned that it’s an “overachiever” event, she laughs.
“It is an emotional roller coaster, a love-hate type of relationship,” Joyner-Kersee said. “But I find balance in doing a lot of things. Everything I do, there’s a connection. I’m looking at the end results and what I’m going to do to get to those results. Anything that appears easy is really actually difficult to achieve. That means I know I always have to work hard.”
Her foundation tries to teach those lessons through its Winning in Life program, which uses a combination of sports and academics to help kids become leaders.
It’s hard to imagine a program having a better role model.
“I try to keep things in perspective. I’m grateful, but even when I competed and was at the top of my career, I always knew there would be someone else,” Joyner-Kersee said. “I tried not to get lost in the success of the moment and to be focused on where I wanted to be in life. That meant being a respectable human being that gave my all to a sport I truly loved.”