Here's how little pressure there was on Jackie Joyner-Kersee. "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."
This was play. Kersee does the coaching, and he knows his wife gets about as many butterflies as Antarctica does. He's the nervous wreck who must prowl the stands, beaming advice by twitches and charades.
Kersee, however, had good reason to harbor supreme hopes. At the Olympic trials in Indianapolis in July, Joyner-Kersee won the heptathlon with a world-record 7,215 points, despite finishing with a mediocre, heat-slowed 800-meter run in 2:20.70. In Seoul's cooler September air she might cut 10 seconds from that time, which would increase her score by 140 points.
The ebullient Kersee meant to keep her loose. After watching 1,000 taekwondoists pick up all the wood they had split in the opening ceremonies, he said, "It'd be great coaching your wife in that sport. 'No, honey, here's how you take a kick to the head.' "
October 2, 1988
The Kersees were staying in the same hotel as legions of Olympic-junketing Coke executives, which caused Jackie—who represents 7-Up—to duck and dodge every time someone tried to snap her picture. "The umbrellas say Coca-Cola, the water cups say Coca-Cola," she said. "Somebody very nicely got me a cup of water on the practice field, and I said, 'Agh, I can't drink that.' "
This is Mount Olympus, 1988. Loyalties seem to be tested everywhere. When USA Today took Jackie to be photographed near a splendid Buddhist temple, the Reverend Mr. Kersee of St. Luke's Baptist Church in Long Beach, Calif., heard the chanting going on inside the temple and nixed the location. "We got this far," he said. "I'm not going to start pissing God off now."
All precautions make sense in the heptathlon, which sets seven-times-seven traps for both sinew and judgment. Yet Joyner-Kersee made Friday's first event, the 100-meter hurdles, seem a breeze. A breeze with a little lull, actually, as she got out strongly, was almost caught by East Germany's Sabine John and then drove away to win in 12.69. That was .02 and four points better than her performance at the trials.
But the high jump hurt her. Her best is 6'4". Struggling to get her speed right on a slightly downhill approach, she needed two tries to clear 6'1¼". Though she strained her left patellar tendon trying, she could go no higher. The second-worst high-jump performance of her career in a major meet earned her only 1,054 points and put her 87 points behind record pace.
Her knee taped, Joyner-Kersee recovered 11 points with a 51'10" shot put and then lost 27 points with a time of 22.56 in the 200-meter run. At the end of the first day, she was 103 points behind her Indy pace, though 181 in front of John, who was in second place. "The woman is leaving with the gold," said her physiotherapist, Bob Forster. "But we'll be doing some work tonight."
Forster and Kersee treated Jackie with ice, ultrasound and cross-fiber massages. She slept with mild electric current thrumming through the injured knee. "After the first day," said Kersee, "people wrote off the world record. They were people who didn't know Jackie."
On Saturday morning all was well. It helped that Joyner-Kersee's take-off knee in the long jump was her good one. On her first try, she would say later, "the run and take-off were fine, but I over-rotated in the air." That meant she didn't keep her legs up as long as she would have liked. Still, the jump was 23'10¼", worth a heptathlon-world-record 1,264 points and a women's Olympic long-jump mark. In one pop she had all but settled the issue of winning and returned to within 11 points of her record pace.
However, she gave almost all of it back in the javelin. Joyner-Kersee usually throws more than 160 feet, but she could do no better than 149'10". That cost her 86 points. "It was disgusting," she said. "The knee was sore. I wasn't using the legs. I was just arming it."
"She was apologetic after the javelin," said Kersee, "even though the timing was impossible with that knee. It's like she has a promise with the fans to give her best."
"I always think about 1984," says Jackie, who, running injured, missed winning the heptathlon in L.A. by five points. "So many people gave me so much support after not winning, I wanted to give something back. I thought of that as I went to the line in the 800."
She walked there with a wan smile. To break the record by a point, she needed to run a 2:13.67. Her best time, set six long years ago at age 20, was 2:09.32. "I knew I was in 2:10 shape," she said. "And I'd always said that when the time came, I'd be able to do it."
Joyner-Kersee went out with revealing power. Heptathletes, who have to have the muscle to throw things, usually don't look at home in the 800. But Joyner-Kersee ran with an elegant, driving precision. "I wanted a 62-second pace at the 400," she recalled, "and to run my own race." That meant start fast and suffer through a long last lap.
The U.S.S.R.'s Natalya Shubenkova led at the 400 in 62.63. Joyner-Kersee was about a second behind. "With a lap to go, my stomach started to burn," she said. "I thought, Oh, no, what's this? Block it out, block it out. If your legs aren't burning, you can still run."
The three East Germans—John, Anke Behmer, and Ines Schulz—began to pull away on the last backstretch. Could Joyner-Kersee keep up? Yes, she could. "With 200 to go I felt strong," she said. "I even got impatient. I wanted to go on by them. But then I thought. Now, Jackie, you are a long way from done."
Not so long. She rolled through the turn and down the stretch with effort but not agony. "I think it's actually easier running faster," she would say. Although she finished fifth, she crossed the line in 2:08.51, which got her a world-record heptathlon score of 7,291 points.
"So, what do you want to do tomorrow?" Jackie asked Bob.
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe clean up the room."
"Yeah, because your stuff is on my side."
"The story," said Kersee to no one in particular, "is really in the preparation. It's in all the important things that have gone into her medals. They are a symbol of the consistency and belief of the athlete, of the work of the doctors, of years of planning and late meals, and of learning from bad races and arguments over workouts. The important things."
He gazed at Jackie, and she gave him a little nod of agreement. Happy families are all alike.