Love & Forgiveness
Story: Jeremy Nulik
Photos: Attilio D'agostino
“If you dream it, you can be it. But can’t nobody want it for you,” Joyner-Kersee tells the students in a voice with more authority and weight than the one amplified through the microphone. The energy level of the room rises as she walks into the middle of the gym floor. All eyes are glued on her, and the once loud children are church-silent. She takes a knee next to one of the kindergarteners. “I’m here today to tell you that the impossible is possible.”
The students have heard these words before, and they would sound empty if it were not for the messenger. But Joyner-Kersee, 51, speaks with an authenticity that is undeniable. She is the person for whom the word adversity was created. Born into poverty in East St. Louis to teenage parents, the asthmatic Joyner-Kersee showed her athletic grit and character from a young age. Coaches’ remarks from her high school and collegiate career note her raw determination and humility.
“The first time that I ran a race, I finished last,” says Joyner-Kersee, whose livelihood these days comes mainly from speaking engagements. “You don’t win all of the time. But you can be a winner in time. That’s the message I want people to hold on to.”
Her authority on the subject comes from a seemingly never-ending list of accolades: three gold, one silver and two bronze Olympic medals between the long jump and the heptathlon at four different Olympic Games. She still holds the world record for the heptathlon from her performance at the 1988 Olympics (at 7,291 points, she broke her own record). Joyner-Kersee attended UCLA on an athletic scholarship for basketball and is considered by many athletes as a trailblazer for women in sports. She also was named the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated For Women magazine.
Beyond athletics, Joyner-Kersee appears in some textbooks in the same chapter as historic figures such as Harriet Tubman and Condoleezza Rice. Her name has become the stuff of legend.
“My name and my position aren’t things I take lightly,” she says. In fact, some of Joyner-Kersee’s greatest life challenges have come after her athletic retirement. “That’s why I take a stand and why I’m still around in my hometown. Some of the kids I talk to are surprised that I’m alive because I’m in their social studies book. It’s humbling and meaningful, and I want to use my position to teach an uplifting attitude: ‘Don’t quit. Don’t give in, and don’t give up.’ I want to teach people how to be a champion.”
Before Joyner-Kersee’s keynote address, the students watch a highlight reel of her athletic accomplishments. And though none of them were alive during her gold medal glory, their reactions would make you think they were in the front row of a Justin Timberlake concert. As Joyner-Kersee is shown rounding the corner in the 800 meters, her last event in the 1988 Olympic Heptathlon, the students begin a raucous cheer. An impromptu “J-J-K” chant is audible over the music that accompanies the video.
Joyner-Kersee smiles and looks down at the gym floor. It’s the same reaction she had when Travis Brown, the athletic director of St. Louis Public Schools, introduced Joyner-Kersee—a woman who needed no introduction with the student audience. Joyner-Kersee was asked to speak to the students as the public face of the school district’s federally funded AIM for Fitness Project, a program that encourages good nutrition, exercise and personal responsibility among area fourth- and fifth-graders.
Her appearance on behalf of the program isn’t a paid endorsement, yet her intensity is matched by no one. Before the program starts, she runs out to her car to get an inhaler. (She still battles asthma.) She then proceeds to lead a tug-of-war, jump rope, instruct a track workout and, simultaneously, shout her advice: “Listen to your teachers. Be respectful and kind. Make healthy choices. If you think a test is gonna be too hard, then it’s gonna be too hard. Think positive.”
“When you get me, you get all of me,” Joyner- Kersee says. “When I talk to kids or athletes, I see myself. When I was younger, I had the opportunity to meet some athletes, and they didn’t have time for me. I don’t want anyone to ever feel that way.”
Joyner-Kersee’s generosity with her time is the easiest place to spot the weight of her legacy. She never turns down photos or autographs. On the day she visits Hickey Elementary, she is mobbed by students at least six times. Never once does she ask them to back off.
Her day-to-day schedule reflects the intensity and diversity of a heptathlon. In addition to her public appearances and speaking engagements, Joyner-Kersee also hosts a locally produced television program, “The JJK Effect,” which airs at 11:30am Sundays on ABC 30. The show is in the spirit of “The Biggest Loser,” with Joyner-Kersee as the drill-sergeant-like fitness instructor.
The Toughest Test
One of her longest-running projects post-Olympics is the Jackie Joyner- Kersee Foundation, which she founded in 1988 with her husband and former coach, Bob Kersee, in Los Angeles. The aim of the organization is to inspire youth and to help underserved families. In 1995, Joyner-Kersee moved the foundation to East St. Louis when she learned that the Mary E. Brown Community Center, a place close to her heart, had closed. She wanted other young people in her neighborhood to have the same opportunity to discover athletics that she had. A new community center would be a positive way to give back to her hometown.
“East St. Louis will always be my home,” Joyner- Kersee says. “I get a great feeling when I’m there. I can walk around, and people know me as a person. They know that I am a human being and connect with me on something other than athletics.”
Back in 2000, the $10 million center opened on 37 acres of ground with a great deal of enthusiasm and fanfare. Donations came in from Nike, Anheuser- Busch, the state of Illinois, the Danforth Foundation and more than 175 other corporate donors to make it happen. There were high hopes of in-depth after-school programs, including dance, football, baseball, softball, basketball and tutoring for local families. And for several years, the foundation and the center hummed along with money from federal and state grant programs.
A 2009 Riverfront Times article shared the Belleville News-Democrat’s laundry list of the center's mishandled finances and summed up the area’s feelings: “There are a lot of rackets on the Eastside; let's hope the supposedly not-for-profit youth athletics center operated by the city's most celebrated athlete is not one of them.”
Although no misappropriation of funds was ever found, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation's reputation, and subsequently her reputation, was tarnished. In turn, the retired athlete suffered financially. Sponsors cancelled her appearances and bookings, which cost her $300,000 in lost revenue. Joyner-Kersee says 2009 was one of the toughest times in her life—tougher than any training for the Olympics.
“That was the most difficult time in my life,” she says. “I’m not one to spend a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror, though. A lot of good came out of it. I learned that in the midst of the darkest times, you find your true supporters. People came into my life who did not want anything from me. They were there just because they cared.”
In 2010, an Illinois couple, whom Joyner- Kersee calls “angels,” put down the cash to reopen the center. They assumed all of the debt and helped get the foundation back in order. They did all of this on faith.
“We’re not angels,” says one of the donors, who wishes to remain anonymous. “When I went into the room to meet with Jackie for the first time, I had no intention of being the catalyst to keep the thing going. But three and a half years later, I can tell you that this has been a gift to me.”
Rebuilding the center has been more than paying off debt. The couple has spent a great deal of time and energy making the board, foundation and center financially sound. And they’ve had to personally guarantee they would pay retail bills for services and equipment.
“If it weren’t for Jackie and what she means to the community, then I’d be out of the situation,” says the donor. “But I’ve seen the way that kids light up when she enters the room. The hope that she brings is huge, and she gives credit where credit is due—to God.”
On Oct. 22, 2013, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation hosted a gala at the Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark. A who’s who of area business and philanthropic leaders attended the event; $225,000 was raised for the organization, which now comprises a new board of directors and three full-time employees. New programming is slowly and methodically being worked back into the mix.
“The gala was an amazing success,” says Mike Greenfield, director of programs for the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center. "It really speaks to the effect that Jackie has on people. I’ve only known her for one year, and I already have so many examples of how she has reached the kids at the center.”
Today, Joyner-Kersee takes her effect past the geographic bounds of East St. Louis and beyond the realm of athletics. During the summer of 2013, more than 60 acres of North St. Louis land owned by developer Paul McKee were leased to Family Roots International, a for-profit, urban farming company that Joyner- Kersee started in 2012. The company used the land to plant sweet corn, field corn and soybeans.
But what was planted and harvested from those fields was something more significant than vegetables. It was a feasibility study for Joyner- Kersee’s audacious vision: increasing the health of underserved people while showing them a world of possibilities.
“The area of agriculture has a lot of growth potential and strength,” Joyner-Kersee says. “First, we’re looking to provide farming and gardening jobs and opportunities for underserved families who otherwise would not know about it. It gives me a chance to talk about healthy lifestyles and nutrition. And since it’s a for-profit company, we can inspire people and show them they can make a living at it.”
But the food—sold to local grocers and families— also functions as a hook. Joyner-Kersee wants underserved families to understand agriculture’s relationship to plant science, cosmetics and medicine, which she believes will unlock passions and create future professional opportunities.
Maurice Foxworth, Joyner-Kersee’s attorney and a principal in Family Roots International, says the entrepreneurial opportunities are a huge growth area. “How do you better inspire a community? You show that there are many viable entrepreneurial opportunities. This region, like many regions in our country, is on the lookout for the next economic development opportunity. With urban farms, we can show viability.”
Love and Forgiveness
One aspect of Joyner-Kersee’s character that Foxworth finds remarkable is her ability to transcend barriers and connect with people of all races, backgrounds and economic statuses. Her newest program, Love and Forgiveness, is a workshop she gives in diverse school, corporate and community groups. In the four-hour sessions, participants face factors that are undermining their peak performance. Resentments are uncovered, and Joyner-Kersee leads participants in an exercise on how to let go of their frustrations.
“The most powerful part is when we can hear each other’s stories and struggles,” says Joyner- Kersee, who gives out bracelets to Love and Forgiveness participants that read: “Don’t Give Up.” “Most of the time, people just want to know that they’re not alone.”
Joyner-Kersee’s work with Love and Forgiveness taps into the heart of what lies beneath her achievements, accolades and struggles. It is the essence of what it means to be a champion—to see possibilities where others see the impossible. That message, for athletes and non-athletes alike, is one that speaks to character. And it is character that Greenfield sees as Joyner-Kersee’s defining legacy.
When we look at legends in their respective sports—in cycling, baseball, football, track and field—it seems that a lot of them have been linked to, or have a suspected link to, PEDs or blood doping. Not Jackie. She has never been linked to any of these suspicions, which makes her gold medals and her heptathlon record even more amazing. That’s what makes her legacy something for the history books. She carries something in her heart that most other athletes don’t have. Her presence and story are inspiring to everyone.”
For Joyner-Kersee, the last several years have proven to be a force-feeding on her own hopeful message of love and forgiveness. Most people would not have the fortitude to start again, and even fewer would attempt to push their vision and legacy further and create more audacious dreams.
But Joyner-Kersee has never thought or behaved the way most people do. And her latest battles with adversity have only strengthened her resolve. She deals with challenges today in much the same way she handled herself on the track—with humble competitiveness. She was not one for flash or spectacle as so many of her contemporaries were. There was no trash-talking or showiness. But after she beat you, she would warmly smile, shake your hand and tell you that you had a great race.