‘I executed what I prepared to do’: How legendary Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee overcame self-doubt to win the gold

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By Cindy Augustine, Share

BBC/ Scott Rovak Katty Kay and Jackie Joyner-Kersee facing each other on chairs. The image is stylised with a purple wash over it, apart from Joyner-Kersee who is in full colour (Credit: BBC/ Scott Rovak)

The retired athlete and hall-of-famer opened up to the BBC’s Katty Kay about the challenges she faced on the road to the Olympics, and the winning mindset that saw her through them.

If Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s life sounds like a movie it’s because it could be one – but her underdog story, while familiar, is far from common. In fact, she’s unique: a four-time Olympic competitor who has won three Olympic medals in both the heptathlon and long jump, and whose record-breaking success she chalks up to an always-positive attitude, as well as the belief that she’d one day be surpassed in sport just as quickly as she’d ascended in it. 

When I broke the records in 1988, it did not occur to me they would not be broken again,” she tells BBC special correspondent Katty Kay in this new episode of Olympian-focused interview series, Influential. “When I left the sport, I wanted to give my all. I didn’t want to say ‘I coulda, shoulda, woulda’, so I left knowing that I had given all I could give,” Joyner-Kersee says. 

Soon after college, then known as Jackie Joyner, she began training for the seven-event heptathlon with coach Bob Kersee, whom she went on to marry. Joyner-Kersee  represented Team USA, competing in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles; Seoul 1988; Barcelona 1992; and Atlanta 1996 Olympic games. She won medals in all four, including three golds, but is quick to note the evolution she went through between them.

Where to find Influential with Katty KayWatch it live on Tuesdays at 22:30 ET on the BBC News channelStream the full episode on YouTube

“The difference between 1984 and 1988, I wasn’t mentally tough in ’84,” she tells Kay. “That setback in 1984 – I was injured, and as long as I believed something was wrong, I performed that way. After that, I wanted to be the toughest one out there, and for the next four years, I trained that way because I doubted myself. My coaches and teammates believed in me more than I did! So, when I went into ’88, I was ready to give my all.”

0:45Jackie Joyner-Kersee made a pact with her brother: they would both go to the Olympics.

Kay also nods to the challenges Joyner-Kersee has faced since childhood. Joyner-Kersee grew up poor in East St Louis, Illinois (sometimes without heat, running water, or enough food to eat); she had asthma but still excelled at sports. She saved her lunch money to pay for track meets and later made a pact with her brother, triple-jumper Al Joyner, to compete in the Olympics someday together (they did, in 1984). She tells Kay how she and her sisters used to fill crisp packets with sand from the playground which she’d use to practice the long jump, her favourite event, in front of their home. 

There are 30 of us and only one of us can get the gold – that’s my attitude – Jackie Joyner-Kersee

We just had a lot of love in our home; we didn’t realise what we didn’t have. We were always told to focus on what we had – and that’s the same attitude I have in my life today. I focus on the things I can control and not worry about the things I cannot,” Joyner-Kersee says.

She won a scholarship to UCLA, far away from her hometown. She was homesick but didn’t tell her mother. Similarly, her mother was very ill at the time but kept the severity of her illness hidden from her daughter, lest she worry. After one worrisome phone call, Joyner-Kersee hurried home to see her mother one last time. She tells Kay that very soon after her mother passed, she saw a vision of her, telling her to return to Los Angeles to finish what she had started. “I heard that whisper of her voice,” she says, and knew her mother would want her to carry on.

0:40″I left knowing that I have given all I could give”.

Joyner-Kersee talks about facing cruelty from the media too; despite being called the greatest athlete in the world, she was also viciously torn down by critics over her appearance.

“I dealt with racism, discrimination,” she tells Kay. “These things could tear you up. But I am who I am. When I’m doing a heptathlon, I’m not trying to be glammed up: I’m out here trying to win. I’m out here competing; We all want that coveted piece of metal and there’s only one. There are 30 of us and only one of us can get the gold – that’s my attitude.”

When asked what it’s like being married to her coach and the challenges for him being married to an athlete, Joyner-Kersee admits that it wasn’t easy, but argues that the two of them together has been greater than the two apart.

“I drove him nuts initially, but I respect Bobby so much as a coach, as my coach,” she tells Kay. “He’s coached many of us to world records. I learned to respect him – and remain coachable. As long as we’r on the same page, we’re a winning combination.”

0:50Olympic medallist Jackie Joyner-Kersee recalls how she faced racial slurs.

As for life after competing, Joyner-Kersee talked to Kay about the community centre she opened in East St Louis, the JJK Foundation, where this interview took place. 

“I knew there were great people in St Louis doing great things, and I wanted the young people to know they could do more than just read about me. We provide after-school programming and educational support,” she says of the community centre. “I want kids to find happiness – and know the discipline it takes and focus and commitment and never giving up. There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Despite being a legendary athlete, Joyner-Kersee remains humble. “I’ve never looked at what I’ve done in amazement because I did what I was supposed to do,” she said. “I executed what I prepared to do.”

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