Awesome Threesome

UPDATED 09/11/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/11/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

Night after night Hazel Clark tossed and turned, dreaming of the big race coming up. There she was with her older sister, three-time Olympian Joetta Clark Diggs, and her sister-in-law Jearl Miles-Clark—all of them coached by her brother and Jearl's husband, J.J. Clark—streaking across the finish line 1-2-3 in the 800 meters at the Olympic trials. "I was so excited," says Hazel, the 1998 NCAA outdoor champ in the event. "Even when I was awake, I'd see us taking the victory lap together."

On July 23, at the trials in Sacramento, Hazel's vision came true—barely. In the final heat of the 800, only the top three finishers would make the team. Hazel, 22, exploded from the blocks and led all the way, with sister-in-law Jearl, 34, the American record holder (at 1:56:40), half a step behind. Still recovering from back injuries suffered in an auto accident, Joetta, 38, struggled to cross the line, seemingly dead-even with Meredith Rainey-Valmon for third place. It took the judges a full two minutes to make the call. "You could have heard a pin drop," remembers Joetta. "Then they said it was me, and it was such an exciting and emotional moment."

And a record-setter as well, as Team Clark became the first trio of related runners ever to sweep the top spots in a U.S. Olympic trial. In the stands, family patriarch Joe Clark, 62, had his own epiphany. "It caused an explosion deep down in the marrow of my bones," he says. "It was one of the most scintillating and thrilling encounters I've witnessed."

That's saying a lot. After all, in the '80s, Clark ignited his own fireworks. Appointed principal of Paterson, N.J.'s violence-ridden Eastside High in '82, he reclaimed the inner-city school from troublemakers and drug dealers with the help of a bullhorn and a baseball bat, and saw himself made famous in the hit 1989 film Lean on Me. (Clark, who now runs a juvenile-detention facility in Newark, left the school the year the film came out, after a heart attack.)

Though a slightly more relaxed disciplinarian at home, Clark was unwavering about one thing. "I always felt that blacks had been stereotyped as sprinters," he says, "which is antithetical to my premise that skills and talents have no racial or ethnic boundaries. So I demanded that the children go into distance."

Joetta, who was ranked the No. 5 female track athlete in the nation by the time she graduated from Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., accepted the paternal demand philosophically. "We didn't have a choice," she says of herself and her sister, "but we were winning, so it was no big deal."

Joetta, who went on to the University of Tennessee, made the Olympic team three times beginning in 1988, though she never medaled, and in 1998 was ranked fourth in the world. That September, however, her career came to a crashing halt. When a truck smashed her car against a highway divider near her New Jersey home, Joetta, who also has a thriving business as a motivational speaker, was left with a concussion and ripped back and abdominal muscles. It took more than a year to get back into Olympic shape. "I still have pain," she says.

During her recovery, Joetta received almost daily visits from accountant Ronald Diggs, 41, whom she had met on a blind date six months before her accident. "He helped me shop and do things," she says. The couple married last year.

Brother J.J., 36, who ran the 800 at Villanova, credits the family's success in part to his mother, Jetta, 62, who is divorced from Joe. (Hazel, 62, whom Joe married later, and from whom he is also divorced, is the younger Hazel's mother.) "My mom is the balance," says J.J. Adds Hazel of Joe and her own mother: "They are both just really dedicated parents."

An Achilles tendon injury forced J.J. to stop competing in 1992. In 1989 he had gone to a meet in Virginia to support Joetta. Due to a shortage of rooms, he had to bunk with his sister, but officials had assigned another runner, Jearl Miles of Alabama A&M, to the same room. J.J. ended up sleeping on the floor. "I didn't really speak to Jearl that night," says J.J., "but we started seeing each other at meets. One day she asked for my phone number."

As his track career faded, J.J. studied massage therapy and eventually took a job with the University of Florida athletic department in Gainesville, Jearl's hometown. He became an assistant track coach at UF in 1992. Though he regretted the end of his running days, "Once I started coaching, I realized what my role was," he says. "God has this all worked out."

So it seemed. J.J. became Jearl's post-college coach in 1991, preparing her for a silver Olympic medal in the 4-x-400-meter relay in 1992, and gold in 1996 in Atlanta. The couple married shortly after the '96 Games and share a spacious new home in Gainesville. "On the track, it's athlete and coach," says Jearl. "At home, it's husband and wife. If I have a bad workout, I don't not cook dinner."

Soon after Jearl became a Clark, her husband began pressuring her to try the 800. "After a few wrestling matches," says J.J., "she gave in." She is now the U.S. record holder, which J.J. attributes to her focus. "On the track," he says, "she can go from calm to aggressive just by flipping a switch."

Meanwhile, the baby of the family, Hazel, was hitting the malls, listening to rap and dealing with boyfriends who had seen Lean on Me and were extra-cautious around the Clark household. She was also doing everything she could to avoid being compared with her sister. "I didn't think I could live up," says Hazel. "In high school, I did everything but track—tennis, volleyball, basketball and figure-skating."

On the ice, "I was pretty awful," admits Hazel, "but if I did something decent, my dad would cheer like I was Kristi Yamaguchi." She wasn't. In September of sophomore year she missed a double axel and suffered a concussion. "I woke up in the hospital," she recalls, "with a big split in my chin." The next day she threw away her skates.

By her senior year, Hazel, known in the family as Peachy, was the most recruited 800 runner in the country. She chose UF. "Even if J.J. wasn't my brother," she says, "he has proven" that he's the best middle-distance coach in America." Hazel first ran against her big sister three years ago, placing fourth to Joetta's second. "I was thinking like a little sister," she says. "I eventually realized that I had to step it up."

She, her sister and sister-in-law hope to step it up again in Sydney. But along with the excitement is a sense of poignancy. This Olympics may be the Clarks' last moment together in the spotlight. Joetta has already said she will retire, and Jearl is thinking of having a baby. Odds are, all three of them won't be medaling in Australia. But Joetta thinks they won a grander prize in Sacramento, capturing a nation's heart with their sweep. "The American people love it," she says, "because it's pure and real and we did it."

J.D. Reed
Kristin Harmel in Gainesville

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