Jackie Joyner-Kersee is one of the greatest track and field athletes in American history. The first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the long jump and the first woman to compile more than 7,000 points in the seven-event heptathlon, Joyner-Kersee went on to win three golds, a silver and two bronze medals over four separate Olympics. She was named Sports Illustrated Women’s top female athlete of the 20th century.
Early Hardship and Athletic Success
Joyner-Kersee was born on March 3, 1962, in East St. Louis, Illinois. The daughter of teenage parents, she endured financial hardship while growing up, but soon rose above the pack with her athletic prowess.
As a teen, she won the National Junior Pentathlon championships four years in a row, and received widespread honors in high school in various sports, including track, basketball, and volleyball. Joyner-Kersee thrived as a basketball and track-and-field star, and during her junior year, she set the Illinois high-school long jump record for women, with a 6.68-meter jump.
Joyner-Kersee attended the University of California, Los Angeles on a full scholarship, and continued to gain fame on both the court and field. However, in 1981, at the age of 19, she began to focus on training for the Olympics, specifically for the heptathlon. She later graduated from UCLA in 1985.
Joyner-Kersee rose to fame through her dominant performances on the world stage, competing in four different Olympic Games.
Competing in her first Olympics, in Los Angeles, Joyner-Kersee earned a silver medal in the heptathlon, a seven-event competition that includes the 200-meter run, 800-meter run, and 100-meter hurdles.
Her older brother, Al, also won the gold medal in the triple jump during Los Angeles Games.
Building on her impressive showing at the 1986 Goodwill Games, Joyner-Kersee made a splash at the Seoul Games by accumulating a record 7,291 points in the heptathlon to win gold. Additionally, she became the first American woman to win gold in the long jump.
With her successful follow-up at the 1992 Barcelona Games, Joyner-Kersee became the first woman to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in the heptathlon. She added a bronze in the long jump.
Joyner-Kersee’s last Olympic run came in 1996 when she took home another bronze medal in the long jump at the Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia. She did not compete in the heptathlon that year due to a pulled hamstring.
Other Records and Achievements
Along with her Olympic triumphs, Joyner-Kersee won four gold medals at the World Championships. She claimed the national heptathlon championship eight times and the national long jump title nine times, setting the American record with her leap of 24 feet, 7 inches in 1994. Joyner-Kersee also thrived in the hurdles, setting national records at distances of 50, 55, and 60 meters.
Later Career and Retirements
After announcing her retirement from the track in the summer of 1998, Joyner-Kersee briefly attempted a career as a professional basketball player. She soon came out of retirement with the goal of making the U.S. Olympic team for the fifth time but fell short at the 2000 Olympic trials. In February 2001, she formally retired for good, at age 38.
Having created the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation, to encourage underprivileged youth in her hometown to play sports, the athletic great devoted more time to the endeavor in retirement. In 2007, she helped establish Athletes for Hope, along with other champions like Andre Agassi, Muhammad Ali, and Mia Hamm. According to its website, the organization aims to “educate, encourage and assist athletes in their efforts to contribute to community and charitable causes.”
Joyner-Kersee joined the board of USA Track & Field in 2012. In 2016, she became a spokesperson for the cable TV company Comcast.
Awards and Honors
Among her many accolades, Joyner-Kersee won the 1986 James E. Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete, as well as USA Track & Field’s Jesse Owens Award in 1986 and ’87. In 1999, she was named the greatest female athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated for Women, and in 2004, she was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame.
In 1986, Joyner-Kersee married her coach, Bob Kersee, who was also training sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, also known as “Flo Jo.” Joyner-Kersee’s brother Al was also married to Flo Jo.