April 24, 2001
NEW YORK - Chosen as the top woman collegiate athlete for the past 25 years, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was asked Monday if one moment in her career stood out.
She thought about it, considered the achievements of a lifetime on the track, first at UCLA and then in the Olympics where she won three gold medals. There was the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete in 1987, followed by a world record of 7,215 points in the heptathlon, and her first Olympic gold in 1988.
The thing she thought of first, though, was a dual meet between UCLA and Southern California.
"I always wanted to be a long jumper, from Day One at UCLA," she said. "It was, 'If we can ever find you a board, maybe ...'
"Then I jumped seven meters against USC in a dual meet. That stands out. I knew then that I could do it. It allowed me to go on and realize my dream."
She was at UCLA on a basketball scholarship and starred in that sport for four years. But that seven-meter jump began a brilliant career in track and field, one that earned her recognition as the top woman collegiate athlete of the past quarter century in a vote by 976 NCAA member schools as part of the Honda Awards Program.
Besides the three golds, there was an Olympic silver and two bronze medals. She led UCLA to NCAA team championships in 1982 and 1983, winning the heptathlon championship both years. She remains the school's record holder in both the heptathlon and long jump.
Joyner-Kersee began her Olympic odyssey in 1984 at Los Angeles and it ended on a humid night at the 1996 games in Atlanta.
She was 34 then, old for an athlete in her sport. These would be her last Olympics, this would be her final event. Already withdrawn from the heptathlon because of a sore right hamstring, and in sixth place with just one long jump left, she willed herself down the runway one last time.
The distance was 22 feet, 11ľ inches, good for the bronze medal. Translated into metrics, the distance was seven meters, the same seven meters she had achieved so many years before at UCLA.
"The bronze medal in 1996 stands out, too," she said. "I was injured but I never gave up on myself. I believed I could do it."
Busy with her foundation and public appearances, Joyner-Kersee said she does not miss competing.
"I enjoy not being out there," she said. "When I was competing, I gave it my all. I know the anxiety. I know what they're going through. I'm very satisfied with where I am.
"I was a fierce competitor, always determined. I never doubted myself. I found a way to overcome when others thought it would be too much. I had a will to win and give my best."
Her legacy goes beyond the achievements on the track. Joyner-Kersee grew up in East St. Louis, Ill. and remembers trying to get into a local community center but finding it boarded up.
That triggered an idea. "I wanted to make an impact beyond running fast and jumping far," she said.
Now a new building stands there, funded by $12 million she raised for its construction and endowment. The new center celebrated its first anniversary last month and provides computer work stations, cultural activities, and, of course, a gymnasium.
Some day, one of the kids in that center might run down a long jump runway and the leap will be measured at seven meters. No one will be happier than Jackie Joyner-Kersee.