The world's greatest woman athlete felt pent up. "I've never been so anxious," said Jackie Joyner-Kersee at Saturday's strangely afflicted Pepsi Invitational track meet at UCLA. "I wanted to get here about 10 o'clock this morning to start warming up. Bobby hasn't been letting me compete."
"We've been having some real head-to-head battles lately," admitted her coach and husband, Bob Kersee, who was finally letting his all-too-versatile wife—the world-record holder in the heptathlon—compete in the long jump and the hurdles after having had her concentrate instead this season on the shot put and javelin. "But Jackie can't fire me—she doesn't even pay me."
Theirs is clearly a productive tension. Joyner-Kersee, frisky as a filly, popped open the Pepsi competition with a 22'7" long jump, the longest outdoor leap in the world this year. She would have earned a better mark if she hadn't fallen back on her rump after landing. She followed with an even more impressive jump, but both fouled and landed facedown in the pit. "I had good height; I just couldn't control it," she said.
Having won the long jump, Joyner-Kersee walked immediately to the start of the 100-meter hurdles. Her legs were powder-dusted with sand from the long jump pit, but she quickly blew the coating off with a ferocious dash over the hurdles. By the end she was nearly a full hurdle ahead of runner-up Nicolle Thompson of UCLA.
May 24, 1987
"It felt really good," said Joyner-Kersee. "In the past I would stop [driving with] my left arm at about the sixth or seventh hurdle, and then my body"—she suddenly pitched to the left, arms splaying, as if to demonstrate—"would go whoooaaa!"
It appeared that Joyner-Kersee had broken Stephanie Hightower's American record of 12.79 seconds. Then came the bad news: The electronic timer had malfunctioned. Joyner-Kersee would be credited with a hand-timed 12.6 seconds, worthless for record purposes. "It's a bit disappointing," said Joyner-Kersee with her customary grace. "But if it's meant to be, then I'll get the record later this year."
"At least it looks like our marriage will stay intact," said Bob.
Staying intact was not easy at Pepsi. Not only was the timing system failing, but also when the featured event, the women's mile, arrived, its star attraction, Mary Decker Slaney, announced that she had felt "a spot of sharp pain" in her right Achilles tendon while warming up and would not compete. It was a wise but difficult decision. The Pepsi mile was to have been the first race on the track in 20 months for Slaney, who gave birth to a daughter, Ashley Lynn, last May 30 and was slowed in her comeback by Achilles surgery in November. "I feel like, What else do I have to do?" she said with quiet frustration. "I feel like I'm being tested."
Even the Pepsi meet's rock-steadiest performer, 6'3½", 280-pound shot-putter John Brenner, didn't have an easy go of it. Brenner, 26, formerly of UCLA, has blossomed this spring into the best American shot-putter in years. He broke the U.S. record twice in April, extending it to 73'10¾", more than a foot beyond Brian Oldfield's previous record, and on Saturday he surpassed 70 feet with all five of his legal throws. But that wasn't enough. "My timing was way off today," Brenner said, shaking his head. "I didn't feel good at all."
Such are Brenner's standards. He thought that his winning toss of 71'8¾"—more than two feet better than the 69'6¼" of runner-up Gregg Tafralis—was "disappointing." Never mind that he was throwing with strained rib muscles and a bum left knee. "I've only been able to train one day in the last three weeks," he said. "I guess today that caught up with me."
Brenner, who has slimmed down from 305 pounds since last summer, is tremendously quick across the ring—he uses the traditional glide technique rather than the discus-type spin—and unusually disciplined. "He's anything but the free-spirit type of shot-putter you read about," says Art Venegas, the widely respected UCLA assistant coach who has worked with Brenner since 1980 and who also helps Joyner-Kersee in the throwing events. "He doesn't take anything lightly." Brenner learned tenacity from his father, Frank, who, after losing his leg in an accident at age 15, went back to play high school basketball again, wearing a prosthesis.
Brenner is the younger brother of New Orleans Saints tight end Hoby Brenner. The brothers co-own a company in Downey, Calif., that makes replacement parts for earth-moving equipment. Brenner is obviously a heavy-duty sort of guy. "Gotta get back into the weight room, more training, more throwing," he said as the meet was drawing to a close.
Joyner-Kersee, his occasional training partner, was having other thoughts. Gotta have more competition, more running, more jumping—that, and an electronic clock that works.