INTERVIEW: Jackie Joyner-Kersee – Beating the odds to be the best of them all

Alam Khan - Reporter 08:33 27/11/2014
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  • Leap of faith: Heptathlon legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee is now a mentor to the next generation of US athletes.

    From an early age, Jackie Joyner-Kersee knew she had to be different in order to make a difference.

    Growing up in crime-riddled East St. Louis, Illinois, life was hard, and even more so for girls.

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    Joyner-Kersee admits a future as arguably the greatest female athlete of all time would have been fanciful had she not ignored negativity and followed the encouragement of those who spotted and nurtured her talent.

    “If you have a goal it’s hard to stray off the path if you are committed,” she says. “Growing up in East St. Louis, it was tough, but it helped prepare me for life.

    “I didn’t know that at the time, but I could see someone was trying to take advantage of me. I know when people are being negative or am in an environment that’s no good for me – sport taught me that.

    “You had a lot of people giving you encouragement but you also had a lot of people saying you couldn’t do it. And on top of that, you couldn’t do it because you were a girl.

    “At the time I was coming up, there were girls doing sport, but it wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. The view was always that maybe you should go and cook – and that’s probably why I never learnt to cook.

    “You would see the crime, but as a young person you would think that is the norm. You would see fighting, drinking, drugs and all sorts of bad things. Then there were people who were trying to do the right things, so you saw good and bad.

    “I stayed strong because I didn’t mind being different. Sometimes different is popular and sometimes it isn’t. For me, I wasn’t afraid to speak up if someone, even if they were on my team and doing something wrong, that’s how I was. I also knew what I wanted to do.”

    Joyner-Kersee also overcame another challenge in the shape of asthma, suffering her first attack just a year before she struck double gold in the heptathlon and long jump at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

    “I was really embarrassed to let people know that I had asthma,” she adds. “I never wanted to use that as an excuse but I realised how much me letting people know, it gave so many people encouragement.

    “Those that were sick they can’t do anything, but they realised I was doing all of these things despite having asthma. So wow, I was giving them inspiration.

    “This was my freshman year, I was a junior in college at UCLA, when I was having problems. When you don’t know what you are dealing with, you think you are having breathing problems because you are just out of shape.

    “The first time it came out publicly was when I was doing an interview with a reporter and I got really sick. I didn’t want people to know about my asthma so I wouldn’t carry my rescue inhaler around with me.

    “I was getting sick and needed something. I hadn’t experienced an asthma attack before and didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t think of it as a disease and you could die from it. When I started realising what could happen I educated myself.

    “I was just fortunate enough I didn’t have an attack until 1987, a year before Seoul. My doctors told me I had to stop living in denial and accept the fact I was an asthmatic. That was the hardest thing because I didn’t want to accept it.”

    But she did, and keen to excel like her sporting inspiration, golfer and athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Joyner-Kersee strived to adopt a winning mentality.

    “I never envisaged where I’d be,” she says. “I had a dream, but it was my coaches who saw the potential I didn’t know I had.

    “I loved it and then wanted to make Olympic teams and be on TV. I didn’t realise how much sport was teaching me as a person, about discipline, commitment, hard work, ups and downs and things I am faced with in KERSEEeveryday life. Sometimes I see a lot of young people with so much pressure on them and don’t like what they are doing. I didn’t like not winning, but I learnt how to be a winner. That came through my failures if I could call them that. I wasn’t the best all the time, but wanted to become the best.

    “Every time I lost, it made me more determined to come back because I was never satisfied. I always felt if I was out there I had to be a student, willing to learn and willing to listen. I had to train like an Olympian.

    “In sport, I’m not going to follow someone for any reason. I have my own beliefs, my own direction. I might study different champions, but I want to understand what makes a champion.”

    And, with three gold, one silver and two bronze medals at four different Olympics, Joyner-Kersee now stands as a champion among champions.

    At 52, she is passing on her words of wisdom to the next generation through her Foundation, events like Doha GOALS, and as a board member of USA Track & Field.

    “I never envisaged where I’d be. I had a dream, but it was my coaches who saw the potential I didn’t know I had.”

    With doping scandals hitting American athletes past and present, notably sprinters such as Marion Jones, Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin, it has been a troubled time.

    “When athletics starts hurting in America, it’s going to hurt worldwide,” admits Joyner-Kersee.

    “The biggest challenge for us is to be sponsors and take care of athletes, allowing their voices to be heard and not let the doping or negativity affect them.

    “Those who are going to cheat are going to cheat anyway. But we cannot let the few cast the doubt on the many and lose a whole generation because our sport starts at our grassroots.

    “In order for our sport to grow we have to be in a position that we are supporting athletes at a young age.

    “Those who want to stray are going to stray anyway but we cannot let the few damage this sport.

    “That’s why it’s important to continue the education. Athletes believe in their coaches and nobody wants to get on something that’s going to harm them.

    “There are so many medicines you can and can’t take. That’s why when I was competing, if I had to go on prednisone I couldn’t compete because it was going to show as a positive test and the first thing people are going to say is you are a drugs cheat.

    “There should be different categories because you are looking for performance-enhancing substances – and people have found ways to use them. It’s unfortunate and that’s why I continue to be connected to the sport, be an advocate and try to be a mentor.

    “People might be doubtful of my generation, but I can’t do anything about that. I know what I gave, how hard I worked. All you can do is move forward.

    “I gave my all to the sport. Now I’m trying to help a younger generation, to help a sport that has given me so much.”