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Black History Month: Jackie Joyner-Kersee is Among the Greatest Athletes of All-Time


This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of Jackie Joyner-Kersee. 

Jackie Joyner-Kersee is among the greatest athletes of all-time. Sports Illustrated definitely thought so when the magazine named her the best female athlete of the 20th century.

Joyner-Kersee won six Olympic medals, including three golds in the heptathlon and long jump. She amassed four gold medals at the World Championships as well, an event that propelled her to national stardom in 1987. After winning two World Champion titles in Rome that year, she donned the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption "Super Woman."

It was after Rome that the momentum toward her impending appearance in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul began. There was so much pressure that Bob Kersee—her coach and husband—all but declared to Sports Illustrated that Joyner-Kersee was guaranteed gold.

"I'm expecting two golds and two world records," said her husband, Bob Kersee, a few days before releasing Jackie into the heptathlon. (The long-jump competition would begin this week.) "If we don't get 'em, it won't be the coaching."

The hype paid off—and her husband's predictions proved true. 

That summer in Korea saw Joyner-Kersee set records in her premier events—the heptathlon and long jump—while netting golds in both. She set the still-standing world record in the heptathlon with 7,291 points. It was the first time an American woman had ever won the event.

Five days later she set an Olympic record with a 7.40 meter leap in the long jump. She was the first American woman to earn a gold medal in that event, too.

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The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona saw more of the same excellence. Again, in the prior year's World Championships—this time in Tokyo—Joyner-Kersee took home gold. Again, she won the gold in the heptathlon in the Olympics. Her only slip-up occurred during the long jump, when she fell well short of her Olympic record leap four years prior. Even so, she still finished with the bronze medal.

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Joyner-Kersee went on to win two more bronze medals in the Olympics and gold at another World Championships through the last six years of her career, cementing herself as one of the greatest American Olympians of all-time. 

Joyner-Kersee broke all those world records while dealing with asthma, something that plagues her to this day. She has since become an advocate for youth athletes with health conditions, partnering with foundations across the country to do so. 

She also launched an initiative with a telecommunications conglomerate to provide internet service and laptops to low-income communities across the country. Since the program's implementation in 2011, Joyner-Kersee has helped more than four million people gain access to low-priced internet. 

The East St. Louis native's foundation helped immensely in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests in 2014, supporting Ferguson's youth to help resolve the boiling political tensions of the time. 

Her foundation also built the $12 million Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in poverty-striken East St. Louis, providing a venue for community, guidance and after-school care for area youth. 

Joyner-Kersee's legacy as a premier athlete, advocate and philanthropist precedes her. 

From the SI Vault: 

"Proving Her Point," by Kenny Moore. (Oct. 2, 1988)

"On Top Of The Worlds," by Kenny Moore. (Sept. 14, 1987)

"Quest For New Conquests," by Kenny Moore. (June 5, 1989)