Don't feel obliged to memorize Jackie Joyner's heptathlon world record of 7,158 points. Sure, that total makes her the best all-around female athlete in the world and the overwhelming favorite for a gold medal in the Seoul Olympics next year. And sure, no other heptathlete has ever broken 7,000 points.
But it's just a number. It's subject to change. And it is the least compelling way to describe the rangy, 25-year-old woman of 5'10" and 150 pounds who last August, in Houston, ran the 100-meter hurdles in 13.18, put the shot 49'10½", high-jumped 6'2", sprinted 200 meters in 22.85, long-jumped 23'¾", threw the javelin 164'5" and ran the 800 meters in 2:09.69.
Even those jolting performances appear on the page as mere digits. Some, of course, you can make fairly vivid. Pace off 23 feet; take a running start and try to jump from the kitchen through the family room and into the laundry hamper. And if you were to assemble a heptathlete's paraphernalia and spend a weekend hurling spears and gasping through half miles, you would end up with some sense of the staggering reality of Joyner's performances.
But you would capture little of the reality of her life. Joyner's tale is about more than an escape from a terrible neighborhood. She was shaped by a mother who bound her to excellence, by an older brother who was an admirer, defender and soul mate and by a coach who demanded the best use of her gifts and did it so selflessly that she eventually married him. Whereupon she bloomed even more grandly.
April 26, 1987
In truth, the metaphor for Jackie Joyner and her 27-year-old brother, Al, the 1984 Olympic triple jump champion, is a pair of glorious roses that have grown through cracks in the sidewalk. Their roots are in East St. Louis, Ill., which is not for a moment to be confused with the St. Louis across the Mississippi River in Missouri, portly and prosperous under its gleaming arch. East St. Louis, then and now, is a landscape of dwindling factories, idle packing plants and rusting rail yards, grim with boarded-up windows and waist-high weeds. The unemployment rate is 12.1%, 43% are at or below the government's official poverty level, and there are plenty of bars to absorb and redirect the furies of its rejected. Indeed, there were a liquor store and pool hall right across Piggott Street from the Joyner house. When Jackie was 11, she saw a man gunned down in that street after an argument.
Al and Jackie are the oldest of four children born to Mary and Alfred Joyner, who got married when Mary was 16 and Alfred 14. This early marriage was the central fact in the lives of both parents and offspring. Alfred Joyner spent a lot of time away from home when his children were growing up. He began working on construction jobs in other cities when Jackie was 10, and four years later he took a job as a railroad switch operator in Springfield, a two-hour trip from home. Mary worked as a nurse's assistant at St. Mary's Hospital.
Their house was little more than wallpaper and sticks, with four tiny bedrooms. During the winters, when the hot-water pipes would freeze, they had to heat water for baths in kettles on the kitchen stove. Their great-grandmother (on their father's side) lived with them until she died on the plastic-covered sofa in the living room while Jackie was at the store buying milk.
"I remember Jackie and me crying together in a back room in that house," says Al, "swearing that someday we were going to make it. Make it out. Make things different." Their mother was of the same mind, and she provided the formula: Study, be nice to people and understand that a single mistake can be devastating. She spoke from experience. Although her children turned out to be the loves of her life, she was determined that they would break the deadening cycle of children having children. "She transferred her aspirations to us," says Jackie.
"It felt funny," says Al, "when someone would ask my father why he didn't go to college [Alfred had been a pole vaulter and hurdler at Lincoln High School], and he'd look over and say it was 'cause of me."
A natural athlete and bright student both in grade school and at Lincoln High, Jackie enjoyed sports and school for the same reasons, a love of improving, of catching on to things, of earning praise. "In the fifth grade," she recalls, "the teacher explained how to do long division, and I didn't get it, didn't understand. But I came home and worked it out by myself. I was so thrilled that I called my mother. And then at school I got to sit at the front of the class. It was great."
At a nearby recreation center, Jackie took up track and field, while Al learned swimming and diving. If they went head-to-head at anything, Jackie won. It didn't matter that she was two years younger. "My dad teased me because Jackie was always so good," says Al. "She could jump farther, and she was fast. She was shy, but in basketball she led by her actions, without saying a word."
The parents had a double standard that couldn't be easily cast off: Daughters were constantly vulnerable; boys were incessantly cruising. "Both my folks were frightened of boys," says Jackie. "And even at 10 or 12 I was a hot, fast little cheerleader. But my mother said, with no chance for negotiation, that I was not going out with guys until I was [she pauses to express the crushing finality of it]...18! So I threw myself [she pauses to permit guesses. Under a train? Into the river?] into sports and school."
The essence of a place like East St. Louis is that its unsuccessful people at once embrace and despise those who do well. They love to see someone they know live out their longings, but they hate to be left behind. Peer pressure in a group of the lost is pressure to surrender. Therefore, you get remarks such as this from Jackie: "I was so good as a kid, a lot of people thought I had to fail." And from Al: "People always told me I wasn't going to succeed. That's what I thrive on. That's my fuel."
Al was the loquacious one, the charmer. He worked as a lifeguard at the local pool and one day saved the life of a seven-year-old girl, who then doted on him as "the sweet man by the water," which turned into Sweetwater, a nickname so apt he has carried it ever since. He brought in so much cash from tips as a shoeshine boy and from winning teenage dance contests that Mary charged him $25 a month rent (secretly saving the money for him), "and she kept me swimming night and day to keep me out of trouble."
It almost worked. Al got in fights (often by demanding that guys stay away from his sister) and put a few rocks through windshields. In East St. Louis there were plenty of opportunities for further decline. "We were in the midst of crime, drinking and drugs," says Al. "I always listened to my mother, but I was the rebellious type."
One night he went to a party. "My mother had this theory," he told SI's Craig Neff. "Be careful, and when the party is over, come home. But it was over at 10 o'clock, so I went to another, at a tavern. There was a raid. The police were looking for someone."
When the police came in, a drunk shouted obscenities at them. "They thought that was me." At once Al had three guns in his face and was being asked to repeat what he had said. He gently convinced the police that he had uttered nothing. "But that made me think," he says.
Mary encouraged their sports endeavors, and Jackie acted as her emissary, dragging Al out of bed in the mornings, nagging him to go to track practice. "I didn't have a big brother," says Al. "I had Jackie. She was my idol."
One can see why. She starred in volleyball, and her Lincoln High basketball team beat opponents by an average of 52.8 points a game. "When I played ball with my little sister, I had to be physically rough to beat her," says Al with pride. He kept a meticulous scrapbook about her through her teens. And when Jackie broke her arm in a Lincoln volleyball game and lay crying on the floor in front of all her friends and family, the one person she called for was Al.
In Jackie's junior spring she long-jumped a state high school record 20'7½". The next year, she jumped 20'9¾" at the Olympic Trials and graduated in the top 10% of her class's 350 students. It seemed to confirm the words of her grandmother who, in choosing Jacqueline, the name of the President's wife, at her granddaughter's birth in 1962, said, "Someday this girl will be the first lady of something."
Prophecy runs in the family. Mary once told a friend who despaired of Al, "Jackie will always shine, but Al will have moments when he's brighter."
Mary seemed to treasure every moment with her brood, and she watched them drawn into the world with regret. "I'd say, 'I've got a track meet this weekend,' " recalls Jackie, "and she'd say, 'This weekend is not promised to you, you know.' She'd tell us that she might not always be there." That seemed a little morbid to Al and Jackie. Mary was healthy and strong, and vibrant. "My mother was so beautiful," says Al. "She'd visit my high school, and guys would whistle at her. I wanted to beat 'em up. Jackie thinks she looks like her. I just say, 'Hah!' "
Jackie convinced the 18-year-old Al that consistent training and discipline would pay off in better performances and maybe enhance his chances for a track scholarship, and in his last three weeks of high school he abruptly improved by 2½ feet in the triple jump, to 50'2½", and earned a ticket to Tennessee State. A semester later he transferred to Arkansas State.
In 1980 Jackie traveled to the glitz and glorious distractions of UCLA. At last she was freed from Mary's strictures. She was 18. "When I got to UCLA, I didn't care as much anymore about men and clothes and parties," says Jackie. "The crisis had passed."
Now she faced a true crisis. In January 1981, Al and Jackie were summoned home from their colleges to find their mother in a coma. Mary had been suddenly stricken by a rare form of meningitis. Jackie tells of arriving at the hospital unprepared to see her mother, swollen and mute, already on a life-support system less than 24 hours after sensing what she thought to be a cold. The four Joyner children—Al, Jackie and their younger sisters, Angela and Debra—gathered in a hospital room with their aunt, Delia Gaines, and their father and were told that Mary was brain dead. She was 38.
The family had a conference to decide whether to turn off the life-support machines. "Our father didn't want to be the one," says Al. "It was left to Jackie and me."
As soon as she saw her mother, Jackie knew it had to be done. "If we left her on the machines," she says, "she'd never have known us, and she would have continued suffering indefinitely."
Besides, Mary had once told Alfred, while watching a TV movie on the subject, "Don't ever let me get that way." So Al and Jackie prayed, took one last look, and the family instructed the doctors to remove the life-support system. Two hours later, Mary died.
"She was the family's inspiration," says Al. "She turned me from bad to good. She taught me to be a gentleman. It preys on me that I never really told her, as an adult, that I loved her."
Her mother's death did not really transform Jackie, "but it brought about a clearer sense of reality," she says now. "I knew about setting goals and things, but with her gone, some of her determination passed to me."
She returned to UCLA filled with grief. The first person to offer comfort was an assistant track coach, an intimidating man named Bob Kersee. "I found that amazing, because I didn't know him beyond his being a coach," she says. "But he said if I had doubts and needed to talk them out, I could come to him. He had lost his mother at 18, too."
Kersee was then 27. If he was intimidating, it was because small talk wasn't his mètier. He went right to the heart of things. The grandson of a Baptist preacher, he was a Navy brat who was born in Panama and raised in a dozen states. He graduated from San Pedro (Calif.) High School. The epitome of the second-echelon athlete who absorbs his sports so well he can teach the most talented, Kersee cannot remember when he didn't coach. "Even as a kid, I studied coaches. I played basketball and ran track from a coach's point of view." He graduated from Long Beach State in 1976 with a degree in exercise physiology and did postgraduate work at Cal State-Northridge before going to UCLA as an assistant in 1980, just a few months before Mary Joyner died.
"I tried to protect Jackie from the 'now I'm the mom' syndrome," says Kersee. "Having her Aunt Della take responsibility for Al and their two sisters was a help. It wasn't time for Jackie to feel the pains of motherhood."
But it was time for the pains of the heptathlon. Until then, Joyner had been perceived as a basketball player and long jumper. For four years she started at forward for the Bruins. As a senior she led them to a 20-10 record, was the team's top rebounder (9.3 per game) and had a 12.7-point scoring average.
As a freshman in track, though, she didn't improve, in spite of her diligent training. "I jumped too much," she says now.
Kersee, the women's sprint coach, wasn't in charge of Joyner, but he had eyes. "I saw this talent walking around the campus that everyone was blind to," he says. "No one was listening to her mild requests to do more. So I went to the athletic director and made him a proposition."
A Kersee proposition is an ultimatum. "Either I coached her in the hurdles, long jump, and multievents, or I'd quit, because to go on as she had would be an abuse of her talent. Another bad year and she'd go concentrate on basketball, which I considered a waste. Women's basketball careers just come to a stop after college."
No longer could Jackie ignore the glare of her potential. "He showed me on paper first," she says. "Jane [Frederick, for 10 years the best American pentathlete and heptathlete] was beating me by 400 points in just two events, the shot and javelin."
"And Jackie has never lost the 200 in a heptathlon," says Kersee. "Her raw speed is the best. Yet everyone could beat her in the hurdles." Gradually, Kersee got Jackie to harness her gifts of speed and spring to the proper techniques. "By 1982, I could see she'd be the world record holder."
At times, Jackie fought it. She was loath to deemphasize basketball, and training for the throws and 800 meters seemed to compromise her beloved long jump.
"The struggle still goes on," says Kersee. "She feels if it weren't for this clown making her do heptathlon, she'd be the world-record holder in the long jump. The crux of all my troubles with athletes is sometimes I'm working toward a goal we've set—and they're not."
But in Jackie's mind, she has come around. "The heptathlon has been the best for me," she says now. "If I'd only long-jumped, I'd have spent much less time on the track, and knowing me I'd have gone out and found something entirely different. Who knows what."
Al, meanwhile, was showing flashes of brilliance amid years of hamstring pulls. In 1983, both Al and Jackie made the U.S. team for the World Championships in Helsinki. "I'd dedicated my jumping to our mother," Al says.
Brother and sister had grown even closer since Mary's death. They each did their best in meets attended by the other. "We got to have a special kind of ESP," says Al. They even got injured together. Both were hurt in Helsinki—each suffered a hamstring pull—and Jackie, after competing on the first day, could not complete the heptathlon, while Al finished eighth in the triple jump.
"Jackie," Al said to his sister, "it's just not our time yet."
Al moved to L.A., and Kersee started coaching them both. Jackie took a winter off from basketball and trained eight hours a day. It all came down to Aug. 4, 1984, the eighth evening of the Los Angeles Olympics, when the men's triple jump final and the last three events of the heptathlon were contested.
"They say that there was no crime at all in East St. Louis that night," says Al.
Jackie was favored after her American record of 6,520 points in the U.S. trials, but she had strained her left hamstring again. Al was not thought to be a contender.
He fixed that in a hurry. Kersee had taught him to control his great speed on the runway. His first jump was 56'7½", a personal best by nearly three inches and the best of the round. The jump still led after three of the six rounds.
As the fourth round began, Al saw that Jackie was lining up for her last event, the 800 meters. She had finished more than two feet short of her best in the long jump and now led Australia's Glynis Nunn by only 31 points. That meant she could let Nunn beat her by 2.13 seconds, or about 14 yards, in the 800 and still take the gold.
He ran across the infield to the edge of the final turn. The women would pass him twice. The first time Nunn was in front. Al shouted to Jackie to stay close. The second time, with 150 yards to race, Nunn led Jackie by about 20 yards. Al became a man afire. He started running alongside his sister on the infield grass. "Pump your arms, Jackie!" he screamed. "This is it!"
Months later, few outside East St. Louis would remember that on that August night Al Joyner became the first American to win the Olympic triple jump in 80 years. But people would stop him on the street. "You're the guy who cheered for his sister," they would say.
Nunn crossed the finish line in 2:10.57. Jackie followed in an anguished 2:13.03, a third of a second too slow. She had lost by five points, 6,390 for Nunn, 6,385 for Joyner.
After waiting out his competitors' last efforts to catch him, Al went to Jackie by the heptathlon awards stand. A silver medal hung around her neck, and she was sobbing.
"It's O.K.," he said, taking her into his arms. "It's O.K."
"I'm not crying because I lost," she said. "I'm crying because you won. You fooled them all."
All except their mother, Mary, who had said there would be a day like this, a day when Al would shine a little brighter.
And still, it was not Jackie's time. She returned to UCLA, went back to basketball and began accepting the occasional date. She was 22, getting over being shy and happy at all the good wishes her Olympian near-miss had evoked.
All the while she kept building her heptathlon strengths. She set the American record in the long jump with 23'9" in Zurich in 1985 ("That was as happy as I've ever seen her," says Al) and fouled on what would have been a world-record 25 feet in Cologne.
The summer before, just after the Olympics, Frederick, at age 32, took back the American heptathlon record with 6,803 points and, in 1985, was ranked first in the world. Yet even then she knew Joyner would be after her.
"As a competitor, you don't observe opponents like a coach does," Frederick says. "I couldn't have dissected her skills and predicted her point potential, but I always thought she would be the one to lead the next generation, and it had to do with the kind of person she was. Hers was a real talent, not a forced one. She wasn't driven to compensate for some bitterness or character failing. She felt good about herself. She had a sense of purpose. With Kersee's direction, she really gave herself to all seven events and had the faith to stand the waiting."
By that, Frederick means the years heptathletes must nurse their hopes between the grand contests, the World Championships and the Olympics. "Almost anyone else with a great individual talent such as Jackie's long jumping would want to show their talent, not wait and train for multievents," says Frederick. "But she stayed true to the larger challenge. It's inspiring to me. I'm glad she's there."
Jackie had always been a star, so she had always understood that the attention she received for it was a side issue, certainly not anything that ought to affect her friends. But here were promising boyfriends folding under the pressure. "I went through some relationships with guys who couldn't handle the praise I got," she says. "It was discouraging. It was educational."
The possibility seemed to loom that her mother's influence was too strong, that having been kept away from men until she could see them clearly, Jackie would never be able to find one good enough. "I got my hopes up a few times, but things still would never click," she says. "I worried that maybe I was meant to be alone."
But her friendship with the demanding Kersee continued to grow. "We could talk about absolutely anything," she says. "And whatever acclaim came to me didn't bother him." Indeed, Kersee sometimes found himself counseling her about why it was that guys said they loved her and then immediately tried to drag her from public attention.
Finally, inaudibly, came the click. They were perfect for each other. "We're complementary personalities," says Kersee. "I'm abrasive with promoters and coaches. Jackie gets along with everybody. She's happy at a banquet table. I have a fit. She's instinctive. She'll go out and lift a building and not ponder over it. I'll want to get the blueprints, find the right beam, decide on an underhand or overhand grip...."
And Jackie is the one woman who can understand the time and thought Kersee puts into coaching. Not only is he now the women's head coach at UCLA, he also guides such stars as triple Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Valerie Brisco (their exuberant exchange of congratulations, which took the form of their wrestling each other to the ground in a celebratory heap, is one of the most vivid memories of the Los Angeles Games) and hurdler Andre Phillips. "They are like my roses," says Kersee, delivering a parable. "They all grow and bloom at the same time because I water and prune and feed them all the same amounts, all at the same time."
Jackie and Bob were wed on Jan. 11, 1986, in tiny Saint Luke's Baptist Church in Long Beach, where Kersee is associate pastor. Al gave his sister away and also served as chief photographer. "When they asked, 'Who gives this woman?' I was out in the crowd showing [Olympic 4 X 100-meter-relay gold medalist] Jeanette Bolden how to work the camera," says Al. " 'Agh! I do!' I said, 'and good luck.' " Kersee and Joyner took forever to get the rings on each other's fingers, so hopeless were they at smothering their laughter.
"This," said the preacher, "is going to be a happy marriage." So it is. Kersee seems able to step nimbly back and forth from coach to husband. "I coached her long before I married her," he says. "If she noticed too much change in the hard-ass coach that I am, she'd question that." But Al sees them at home. "He just switches," he says with wonder. "He cooks. He waits on her. You'd never know he was such a slave driver."
Only by the results. In May 1986, Jackie went to Gotzis, Austria, and regained the American heptathlon record with 6,841 points, defeating East Germany's best, Anke Behmer.
And then last July she serenely took possession of the Goodwill Games heptathlon in Moscow with six heptathlon personal bests. She broke Sabine Paetz's world record by 202 points with 7,148. It was the first time Joyner had neared the personal goals that she and Kersee had set years before. "The few people we had told about my goals had listened politely, but in their hearts you could see they thought I was crazy," she says.
It was harder for some people to adjust to this new record than it was for her to set it. "Dwight Stones said, 'No way you're ever going to do that again,' " says Joyner. So she did it again, only better, four weeks later, with the 7,158 at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Houston. For those performances, Jackie won the prestigious Sullivan Award as the country's outstanding amateur athlete for 1986.
Now, with Jackie's continued work on the shot and javelin, Kersee foresees a score of 7,230. "Of course, goal number one is to be prepared to win the worlds in Rome in September and the Olympics in Seoul," he adds. "For that, the 800 is key. If she's prepared in the 800, she'd be doubly ready for the other events. Having a super event in reserve gives you a certain calm and causes a certain terror in your opponents. So this year, that's where the arguments are going to come. No more 2:14's."
Mary Decker Slaney's American record at 800 meters is 1:56.9. Kersee's goal is 2:03; Jackie's goal is 2:05. She has chosen it, she says, "because it's within the realm of possibility, and it would make me hard to beat."
And then she will be first, and a lady, and the final fulfillment of her mother's dream.