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Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the World's Greatest Female Athlete, Gets Ready, Set to Make History in Seoul

updated 08/29/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/29/1988 01:00AM

The Seoul Olympics next month will be a family affair for two of the brightest U.S. stars of track and field. Jackie Joyner-Kersee is the favorite to take the gold medal in the heptathlon and a strong contender in the long jump. Jackie's sister-in-law, flashy Florence Griffith Joyner, just broke the world record in the 100 meters. Florence (see following story) will compete in the 100 and 200 meters and the 4x100-meter relay, and she will be coached by her husband and Jackie's brother, Al Joyner—who himself barely missed making the Olympic team in the triple jump. And Jackie's coach will be her husband, Bob Kersee—who until recently also coached Flo. Got all that? Then let's check out the sizzling sisters-in-law—first Jackie, and then Flo.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 26, is standing in front of a mirror in the UCLA weight room, readying herself to lift a barbell loaded with 220 pounds. Her muscular, 5'10", 147-lb. frame, carrying a minuscule 6 percent body fat, is about as close to the athletic ideal as a human being can get. Next to her, 21-year-old Olympic sprinter Roy Martin struggles to lift the same weight.

"Look, Roy," says Jackie quietly, "push your butt in while you're lifting." In one clean transfer of energy from legs to torso to arms, Jackie hoists her barbell from knees to shoulders.

"It's the secret of her success," says Bobby Kersee. "Jackie's always working on technique. She wants perfection."

Joyner-Kersee may make a major leap closer to perfection when she takes the field for the heptathlon in Seoul. Spanning two days, the heptathlon—the women's seven-event version of the men's decathlon—tests strength, speed and precision. On the first day, contestants vie in the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200-meter dash; on the second, they summon their remaining energies to long jump, hurl the javelin and run the 800 meters. "If I'm healthy," says Jackie, "I'll be confident."

She has reason to be: Joyner-Kersee is the greatest female athlete in the world. She is the only woman to surpass 7,000 points in the heptathlon, and she has done it four times, concluding with a world-record 7,215 at the Olympic Trials in July. She has also shared the world long-jump record.

"I've done research on Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Wilma Rudolph and Althea Gibson," says Dave Dorr, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter who has followed Joyner-Kersee since she was 12. "I feel there's never been a female athlete to compare with Jackie."

It is a mysterious and delicate balance of ability, determination and motivation that transforms gifted athletes into world champions, and for all her natural talent, Jacqueline Joyner has had plenty of real-life hurdles to overcome. She was the second child born to Alfred and Mary Joyner, who named her after the country's then First Lady. The Joyners were poor and they were young. They had their first child, Al Jr., when Mary was 16 and Al was 14. Two more daughters followed, and while Al Sr. spent a lot of time away from home in his job as a railroad switch operator, Mary held the family together at their small house in East St. Louis, III. Jackie exhibited both athletic prowess and determination early. She started track at 9, and soon convinced her sisters to carry sand from the park across the street in small potato-chip bags to make her a jumping pit in their yard. In high school Jackie excelled in everything she tried—basketball, volleyball and track. Then she won a basketball scholarship to UCLA, where destiny awaited in the form of a young track coach named Bob Kersee.

"From the first day I saw Jackie, I knew she was the greatest woman athlete I'd ever seen," says Kersee, 34. "She had the eye for technique, the intent and the tenacity to be a world champion." He could also see that she wasn't being properly taught. "I told the head coach I needed to work with her. It wasn't a question of winning points for UCLA. We had a responsibility to fulfill her awesome potential."

Joyner's relationship with her coach deepened during the winter of her freshman year, when her mother died of meningitis at age 38. "I didn't know Bobby that well," says Jackie, "but he came up to me and told me that his mother had also died when he was young and he'd be there if I needed someone to talk to. He let me know he cared about me as a person as well as as an athlete."

In Jackie Joyner, Kersee had found his ideal pupil: a woman who cared as much about being coached as he cared about coaching. He steered her to a heptathlon silver medal in the 1984 Olympic Games—she would surely have won the gold but for a torn hamstring. The following autumn they were in Houston, and Kersee asked Jackie to go to an Astros game with him. "Nolan Ryan was striking everyone out," he recalls. "It just came to me: I decided to try a fastball myself. I turned to her and said, 'I would like to marry you. Would you like to marry me?' " Jackie thought it over for a day or so, then agreed. "It seemed natural," she says. "I felt I was ready to be married, and I knew Bobby was a good man. I thought, 'Why pass up something good?' " They had a small wedding in January 1986. "Jackie's stubborn in a hardheaded way, and I've got tunnel vision," Kersee cheerfully admits of their relationship. "We tease each other a lot. We enjoy each other." The couple plan to have children, but they haven't yet decided when.

Jackie's aspirations do not stop with athletics and family: She is grooming herself to become a leader in the black community. In addition to making appearances for the Urban League, she is raising funds for a foundation to renovate her old recreation center in the decaying East St. Louis neighborhood where she grew up. "It was my outlet," she says. "I want to give something back to the community." Says her husband: "She'd rather go back to East St. Louis than go to Hawaii."

It may be that at the Olympic Games both coach-husband and athlete-wife will fulfill their potentials. "We're going for golds and world records in both the heptathlon and the long jump," says Jackie. Says Kersee, shaking his head: "If she's in the best shape of her life, then Lord knows what will happen. Jackie's performance in Seoul may very well be one of the greatest spectacles in sport."

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