Sports Hero Profile: Track star faced prejudice twofold
This is Part 1 of a three-part series on Jackie Joyner-Kersee, UH junior sprinter, hurdler Seun Adigun’s role model.
Born in poverty-stricken east St. Louis in 1962 and often called the greatest†black female athlete ever, multi-talented Jackie Joyner-Kersee began her track and field career from poor and humble roots.
In her autobiography A Kind of Grace, Joyner-Kersee recalls how her grandmother named her Jacqueline after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, hoping her granddaughter would someday be the "first lady" of something.
Kenny Moore of Sports Illustrated wrote, "their house was little more than wallpaper and sticks, with four tiny bedrooms. During the winters, when the hot water pipes would freeze, they had to heat water for baths in kettles on the kitchen stove."
Her older brother, Al Joyner, told Sports Illustrated, "I remember Jackie and me crying together in a back room in that house, swearing that someday we were going to make it. Make it out. Make things different."
Despite the poor living conditions, the black community she grew up in helped Joyner-Kersee develop self-image as a confidant young black girl†and as an athlete. The Mary Brown Community Center in her neighborhood, which she once discussed in a Boys and Girls Club vision statement, instilled values and morals in her. It is also where she was first introduced to track and field.
As she began to compete regularly, she drew strength from examples of famous female athletes such as Wilma Rudolph and Babe Didrikson. Rudolph was a tremendous role model to her. Joyner-Kersee said in an interview with Mark Marvel titled "For the Love of New Horizons: Jackie," that Rudolph was so inspiring because she "never allowed racial discrimination to make her bitter."
Mary Joyner, her mother and biggest fan, wanted her kids to succeed at every challenge they dared. Her mother, along with the famous female role models that she admired, made her take pride in her ethnicity and gender, and she began to understand that she was about to take on something big. She knew she would have to deal with racism and sexism head on.
By the time she was 14, Joyner-Kersee won four consecutive national junior pentathlon championships, consisting of five events, but track was not her only love. Once she got to high school, she became a multi-sport athlete, with her talents shining through on the basketball court. She also graduated in the top 10 percent of her class, showing education was also important to her.
Because of her athleticism and commitment to education, many colleges recruited Joyner-Kersee. She chose to attend the University of California at Los Angeles on a basketball scholarship. Her career was off to a promising start until tragedy struck.
Mary Joyner became ill during Jackie’s freshman year at college. Joyner-Kersee wrote in her book that her mother contracted a bacterial infection that turned into a rare form of meningitis called Waterhouse-Friderichsen†Syndrome. Before Joyner-Kersee could make it home her mother†went into a coma. Joyner-Kersee and her siblings chose to take their mother off a respirator.
Of her mother she said, "the Mary Joyner we all knew, my mother, and my life’s greatest inspiration is gone. My mother meant everything to me. She was my confidante, my teammate and my best friend"
The loss of her mother was sudden and unexpected. With that tragedy Joyner-Kersee now had to decide if continuing her promising career was worth it.