If you don’t know Olympic legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee, one of the most decorated female athletes in track and field history, I recommend watching a YouTube clip of her performance in the 1988 Seol Olympics where the multi-eventer took home the gold for both Heptathalon and Long Jump. With a competitive career spanning well over a decade, she continued to set and break her own records, standing on the hallowed podium six times — but with 20 years since her last Olympic Games, where is Jackie Joyner-Kersee now? Bustle was lucky enough to chat with Joyner-Kersee before she boarded a plane to Rio to cheer on the latest crop of American Track and Field stars.
Since officially retiring from athletic competition in 2001 at the age of 38, Joyner-Kersee has yet to slow down. Off the field, she has turned her enviable energy and focus to giving back to the community where she grew up — East St. Louis. Joyner-Kersee left what has been called the most dangerous city in America to attend college at UCLA in 1980 on a full scholarship. But throughout the many highs of her life, the needs of her hometown have tugged at her, ultimately calling her home. Since leaving competition, she has devoted her self to community work, touring the country giving speeches, mentoring athletes, and being the champion that the children of the oft-neglected, struggling city on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River so desperately needs.
Joyner-Kersee, who was voted the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated for Women, is remarkably down to earth and approaches each day with a sense of humor and purpose. She has structured her life around one powerful motto. “I went to the ‘84 olympics with my brother, and he won the gold and I won the silver. Everyone was happy for me, but I wasn’t satisfied because I knew that I could do better,” Joyner-Kersee told Bustle. “And that’s always my motto, that ‘I can do better.’ Others might not understand, but it allows me to never accept mediocrity, never be complacent.” She has three gold, one silver, and two bronze Olympic Medals (which are kept at her dad’s house) to prove it.
In 1996, she founded and began construction on the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation. “I remember it so clearly because I was training for the Olympics and I had pulled my leg muscle. I didn’t want to go to the ground-breaking, but I had to put on a smile,” she said. Doors opened in 2000, and Joyner-Kersee introduced her “Winning At Life” program, a curriculum of 13 principles which aims “to help female athletes in high school become leaders, team players, improve grades and their confidence.”
Around 2008 the youth center was shuttered over funding issues, but Joyner-Kersee continued to work on a new approach. “You struggle and go through things,” Joyner-Kersee told Bustle. “I didn’t run away from what was happening, I had to deal with it because this was a part of my dream, and the dream is much bigger than me; I’m trying to make a change in the people’s lives of those who live in the community.”
Jackie is no stranger to challenge. She was diagnosed with severe asthma as a freshman in college — the same year she suffered the loss of her mother. "While I was in the storm I thought, ‘that’s just life.’ Now I’ve had time to reflect, and I realized ‘No, that’s a lot to go through’." To this day she maintains a positive attitude: “Every step of the way I have had different challenges, and I think that’s what motivated me, because when I could have given up I found the energy to fight through.”
The center soon reopened, and has been flourishing ever since. In a neighborhood dotted with abandoned houses and commercial building, where the average per-capita income is less than $13,000, Joyner-Kersee takes pride in “being in the position to help so many families and give them a place in a community that is very distressed and has a lot of negativity.”
“When I was a young girl I came through a community center, and I didn’t realize how impactful it had been on my life, so I always wanted to give back.” Joyner-Kersee told Bustle that she first got the itch to build the center in 1981, when upon returning home she saw that her community center had closed. "I started thinking, 'Where do the young people go?'" Throughout her Olympic career she used her sponsorship dollars to support different programs until starting a foundation of her own. “Being able to build that center has revitalized the area to the point where housing and other businesses are coming in, Joyner-Kersee explained. "But there’s still a lot more that needs to be done."
"I hope to live forever, but I know I won’t. The center will always be there and will continue to have an impact." The center — and with any luck, her unbroken Heptathalon record.
Be sure to tune in for this year's Women’s Heptathalon Friday, August 12!