GALLIPOLIS — Jackie Joyner-Kersee said she attained her goals of Olympic greatness because she didn’t “allow the environment from which I came define me.”
Joyner-Kersee, once dubbed “The Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century” by Sports Illustrated, spoke for about 25 minutes Sunday afternoon during the final day of the 152nd annual Emancipation Celebration Weekend at Bobs Evans Farms, telling the crowd about her Olympic and philanthropic endeavors.
“I didn’t really know much about it. Once I was asked to come, I did my research and to know that this has been ongoing for 152 years, that is amazing,” she said of the celebration. “History is so important. You can only learn from history.”
Joyner-Kersee said history is important because “we know what has happened in our communities.” She emphasized that Gallia County’s continuing celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation should be better known throughout the nation.
“This celebration … everyone should know about it,” she said. “We should have a curriculum in schools, just like they talk about the Olympics. They should be talking about the Emancipation Celebration Day. All of our young people need to know why this day is so important because they are our future.”
With that, Joyner-Kersee reflected upon her own personal history, sharing with the crowd her family’s struggles.
“As a little girl growing up in East St. Louis, Ill., if it was not for people who saw the potential in me that I did not know that I had, I don’t know where my life would have taken me,” she said. “I was exposed to education through a community center that was located right across from my home. I would go to that community center and work with the librarian who taught me at that time how to check out books.”
Joyner-Kersee said she discovered her love for athletics at the age of 9 and decided to join the track team with her siblings and neighborhood friends. Together they ran at a track, but the next day, Joyner-Kersee was the only one on the track.
“We really didn’t have a track; we had a park,” she said. “I was told one lap around was 400 meters, and we believed that. When I got older, I learned it was 1,200 meters around. I understood why my sisters and my friends quit running with me.”
Joyner-Kersee said that she was by no means the best athlete around at that time.
“I told myself I would go to practice every day and if I could improve — even a tenth of a second every time I went out to run or a half-inch if I was jumping — that meant that the work I was putting in was paying off,” she said.
Joyner-Kersee said she would set her own personal goals and work to achieve them as best she could.
“I won a lot of ribbons, but I got to the point where I wanted to be up on the podium (with the medal winners),” she said. “I said, ‘I want to be up there.’ I set my sights on trying to get into the top three. Eventually, my times became faster and I earn(ed) third place, then second place, then first place.”
Years later, when she was 14, Joyner-Kersee first realized her Olympic aspirations.
“I saw the ’76 Olympic Games on television,” she said. “That’s when I said, ‘I want to go to the Olympics.’”
Joyner-Kersee competed in Summer Olympic Games in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996, amassing six medals, and four world championship titles. She is the world’s most decorated woman in U.S. Olympic track and field history.
In 1988, Joyner-Kersee became the only woman to win a gold medal in a multi-event and specialty event at the same Olympics, when she earned gold in both the heptathlon and the long-jump. She is also the only woman to win two Olympic heptathlons (1988 and 1992).
Joyner-Kersee was the first woman in history to earn more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon. More than 20 years later, she still holds the world heptathlon record of 7,291 points.
Joyner-Kersee continues to maintain Olympic and national records in the long jump, and her 1994 performance in the long jump remains the second longest in history. In addition to heptathlon and long jump, Jackie was a world class 100-meter and 200-meter competitor.
After a decorated All-American career in women’s college basketball at UCLA, she eventually played professional basketball for a short time.
Even with all the accolades, Joyner-Kersee said the first Olympics taught her a lesson for future competitions.
“I was always looking for a reason not to do my best,” she said. “I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. I just wasn’t. Sometimes in life, we prepare ourselves to be the best that we can be and when it comes time to execute, we get in our own way and overthink it.”
Joyner-Kersee said her only goal in life was to make her parents proud. While the medals are nice, she said they are only symbolic of how hard she worked to achieve her goals … and those medals can be taken away at any time.
“The accolades … they’re OK. But I strive to be a great human being because what I stand for, you can’t take away,” she said.
Reach Michael Johnson at 740-446-2342, ext. 2102, or on Twitter @OhioEditorMike.