Bruce Jenner's Bud Light Classic always signals renewal in that it kicks off the annual outdoor season of major championship track meets. But last Saturday, on the blue San Jose City College track, the rising sap theme was sounded insistently. Old athletes sprang to the call so freshly and new ones so competently that the occasion was lent a vigor not always present in a post-Olympic year.
Witness the evergreen Steve Scott, America's premier miler for most of the last 12 years. With a backstretch gale filling his nostrils with the nutmeg aroma of blooming star jasmine, the 33-year-old runner kicked away over the last 200 meters to win his eighth straight 1,500 or mile in this meet, in 3:39.33. Since late last year he has devoted his training to the 5,000, but he says, "For as long as I run, I'll run miles. I have a tot of pride in being the top American miler. I guard that like I guard my kids."
For the new, follow the spear of rangy, slickly pomaded Kazuhiro Mizoguchi, that rare creature, a world-class Japanese javelin thrower. He reached 287'5", a bare two inches from the world record of Czechoslovakia's Jan Zelezny.
Then there was an athlete who represented both renewal and new horizons. You could identify Jackie Joyner-Kersee by her accompanying covey of giddy teenage girls, all faintly ill with love.
June 4, 1989
Popularity is not new to her, of course, but after winning gold medals in the Olympic long jump and heptathlon and raising her own world record in the latter, Joyner-Kersee is now a star of the brightest order, even though she isn't used to being a celebrity yet. "It's still funny to me, having people in airports say, 'Hi, Jackie,' " she says. "Of course, I love to talk about anything you want to talk about, so it's nice. It's like suddenly having millions of close friends."
That she isn't weighed down by the crush suggests that she inspires warmth and endearment rather than unbridled passion. "People have been very respectful, but I also believe it is the responsibility of Olympic champions to give something back to youth, to the public," she says. "It's our duty."
Joyner-Kersee has seen her duty clearly. Oh, there are hefty endorsement contracts with Adidas, 7-Up and the asthma medicine Primatene Mist. And there is The Gap clothing ad with a photo of her in a moment of elegant solemnity ("Let's say it was one of my better pictures," she giggles, "like one in a million"). But she has spent most of her time since Seoul on causes that are centered on children, including motivational talks sponsored by McDonald's, which she has given at school assemblies in large U.S. cities. And she has called at uncounted hospitals and churches.
"I like kids to get to know me," Joyner-Kersee says. "Sure, I've achieved a lot, but the thing is to let them see that everyone is...raw material. I want to be a good statement of possibilities."
Her sister-in-law, sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, found her own post-Olympic whirl of commercials and appearances so taxing that she abruptly retired from competition at 29. What has been the effect of celebrity on the 27-year-old Joyner-Kersee? "I've had to cut my training by about 60 percent," she says. "I get in fewer days, and less work on the days I do get."
But she has done an inspired thing. She has added another event to her already exhausting repertoire, the lung-racking 400-meter hurdles.
The logic is this: Three of the heptathlon's tasks are the 200 meters, the 800 meters and the 100-meter hurdles—speed, endurance and hurdling. "Training for one event keeps me strong in three," she says. "But I'm also taking this very seriously, for its own sake."
Joyner-Kersee isn't quite a novice at the 400 hurdles. In 1985 she was second in the event at the NCAA championships and later that year ran her personal best of 55.05, but then she focused on obliterating the heptathlon record. In San Jose, there were no thoughts of going for the world record of 52.94 set by Marina Stepanova of the U.S.S.R. in 1986. "With all the missed training, I was frightened," she says. "I didn't know how much strength would be there."
So her coach and husband, the ebullient Bob Kersee, fashioned a race plan based on caution and on Joyner-Kersee's hurdling peculiarities. She has, as do most hurdlers, a "dominant" leg. If possible, she would lead over every barrier with her left. But 400 hurdling doesn't always fit into such a neat package. "If she takes 13 steps between hurdles, she's got to sprint so hard she's shot by 300," says Kersee. "And 15 steps is too slow. It's got to be 14."
Alas, taking 14 steps forces Joyner-Kersee to alternate her leading leg at every hurdle, which limits her in establishing a race rhythm. But she accepted the necessity of that and maximized her efficiency with a stride pattern that had her leading with her dominant left leg over the crucial 10th and last obstacle.
At the gun, the wind whipped up and caught her as if she were the spinnaker of a sailboat. "I was too high over the first hurdle," Joyner-Kersee said. She ran tentatively, feeling her way and losing her race plan. Thus she had to lead with her weaker right leg over the second through sixth hurdles. This got her nowhere. At 200 meters, an upstart, Victoria Fulcher, had a clear lead while Joyner-Kersee struggled. "I kept hoping, hurdle after hurdle, for my left to come up, my strong side," said Joyner-Kersee. "It was lack of experience, mentally not knowing where I was."
Finally, at the seventh hurdle, in the final turn, Joyner-Kersee's steps clicked in. She roared past Fulcher at the eighth hurdle, had to take short, choppy steps and lead again with her right leg over the ninth, but recovered to make the last leap in fine, strong lefty style. She won in the slow time of 57.15. Fulcher ran 57.55, and finished second.
Kersee had watched the wrong-legged journey in helpless misery. "Tell that girl to remember that she wears her wedding ring on the left hand," Stanford coach Brooks Johnson kiddingly yelled to him. "That was awesome. Only an athlete of her quality could have pulled it out that late."
"She can do three seconds faster," said Kersee. Then he offered a bold prediction. "A 54.1 or better. She'll get the American record [of 54.23 by Judi Brown King] by the end of July."
Still Joyner-Kersee was pleased. "I'm in better shape than I thought," she said. "Once I get the mechanics, the times will come." She was last seen patiently writing elaborate personal messages on meet programs dictated by some of the millions of young friends who flocked to her side. Thus are the tiny torches kindled, the seasons extended.