Breaking Barriers: UCLA's Jackie Joyner-Kersee

By Ann Killion

What is the power of a university's name on the front of a jersey? It's the power to change the course of history in women's sports.

As a girl growing up in hardscrabble circumstances in East St. Louis, Ill., in the mid-1970s, Jackie Joyner thirsted for whatever role models she could find in the world of women's sports. She found two, Evelyn Ashford and Ann Meyers.

At the age of 14, Joyner-Kersee watched UCLA's Evelyn Ashford compete at the 1976 Olympics. In 1978, she watched Ann Meyers - the first woman to earn a four-year scholarship to play basketball at UCLA - led the Bruins to a national championship in basketball.

"It was really the first time as a young person that I got to see women on TV. Title IX had just come into existence," said Joyner-Kersee. "To me, Evelyn and Ann were the opportunity. I was seeing women doing things that I hoped to do and they were associated with UCLA.

"I didn't know if they would recruit me. But UCLA was always my choice."

Those glimpses of opportunity inspired Joyner and spawned what is widely considered the greatest athletic career in women's history.

UCLA did recruit her, in both sports. And she starred for the Bruins in both of them. She was a starter at forward for four years on the basketball team, and her prowess on the track - eventually in heptathlon - led her to be named the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century by several organizations.

Though Joyner aspired to attend UCLA, the journey was still a shock to a girl raised in poverty in East St. Louis. Westwood was like a different planet. Though she had already seen other parts of America and other countries as a top amateur athlete, it still took time to adjust to life in California.

"I was terribly homesick, away from home and friends," she said. "I had to remind myself constantly why I was there. But it wasn't an option to go back home. My choice was to make it at UCLA."

Her freshman year was extremely difficult. That January, Joyner's mother was diagnosed with a rare form of meningitis and fell into a coma. Jackie rushed home to be at her bedside; eventually she and her brother Al had to make the decision to remove their mother from life support.

Many people were concerned that she might not return to school. A young assistant coach, Bobby Kersee, talked to her before she left for home. He had lost his mother at a young age, and he implored her not to make a rash decision.

"I realized when I was home that the one thing I had going for me was school," Joyner-Kersee said. "I had a wake up call. I knew I had to go back to school."

It wasn't easy, and around Mother's Day she had a breakdown. But she found a support system at UCLA, in her teammates, coaches and Kersee, who she would eventually marry a year after graduating. Joyner-Kersee remembers a "very supportive environment."

Joyner juggled both sports easily, helped by cooperation from basketball coach Billie Moore and track coach Scott Chisam.

"I felt each program complemented the other," she said.

Under Kersee's tutelage, she began concentrating on the heptathlon. After three years, Joyner took a redshirt year in order to focus on making the 1984 Olympic team. She made the team and competed in Los Angeles, where she won the silver medal in heptathlon, missing gold by just five points.

"Before the Games, I didn't understand the significance," she said. "But at that moment, with the stadium full, everyone watching you, going up against great athletes, it was unimaginable."

Joyner never considered not returning to UCLA, and she returned to play basketball, run track and complete her degree in history.

"My commitment was to UCLA and myself," she said. "It wasn't hard at all to go back. There was so much more I needed to learn about myself. I needed to work on Jackie."

During her time at UCLA, she felt like it was a supportive and exciting environment for women. She played basketball against Cheryl Miller and saw a new trend of respect and acceptance in the women's game. She remembers that when she began competing as a female Pac-10 athlete, score was finally kept at dual meets for the first time, because it was a coveted honor to become a Pac-10 champion.

Joyner-Kersee had opportunities to play basketball in Europe after graduation, but by that point she was fully invested in her track career.

"I knew in my heart I wanted to run," she said. "I had goals. I was very driven. My dream was to become an Olympic champion."

She fulfilled that dream several times over. In 1986 she set a world record in the heptathlon (7148 points) at the Goodwill Games in Moscow. She broke that record for the fourth time while winning gold at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. She defended her gold medal in Barcelona. In 1996, in her final Olympic Games, despite a hamstring injury that forced her to withdraw from the heptathlon, she won a bronze medal in the long jump.

Throughout it all, she stayed connected to UCLA. She trained there with Kersee, who became the head coach at UCLA in 1985. In her training group were some of the top athletes of the era, such as Gail Devers, Florence Griffith Joyner and Valerie Brisco.

"We were breaking barriers for women athletes," Joyner-Kersee said.

She always stayed connected with her roots in East St. Louis and moved back after her retirement from competition in 1996 to build a youth community center and foundation.

"A lot of people don't claim East St. Louis as home," she said. "I didn't want my community to say that about me. I wanted them to touch and feel me. To know that home is always home."

But she goes back and forth, for speaking engagements, coaching sessions and the annual Rafer Johnson/Jackie Joyner-Kersee Invitational at UCLA.

"UCLA will also always be home," she said. "It's where a lot of success happened.

"It's where my dreams came true."

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