For Jackie Joyner-Kersee, named for Jackie Kennedy and raised on the mean streets of East St. Louis, IL, sport has always been a refuge. The woman who once said that being an athlete is “a kind of grace” was able to overcome poverty, tragedy and discrimination to become a track and field world record-holder and one of the greatest athletes of all time. Jackie–with poise, passion and a desire to help families in the community she calls home–created the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center, which is now under a partnership with the East St. Louis School District. The center houses a gym, classrooms, computer and science labs and a health center—resources that were nonexistent in the community before it opened in 2000. The facility has had its ups and downs but has undoubtedly played a critical role in helping revitalize the community.
During her career, Jackie came to dominate the heptathlon, a demanding seven-event competition (100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meter, long jump, javelin throw and 800 meter) that measures speed, strength and stamina. She enjoyed one of history’s greatest Olympic careers as a heptathlete and long jumper, in which she won six medals, including three golds. Jackie ended her Olympic career in Atlanta in 1996 with a bronze-winning long jump, and she remains the world record-holder for points scored in the heptathlon.
Jackie earned an elite spot in women’s sports, being named the greatest sportswoman of the century by Sports Illustrated for Women and earning the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) highest honor—the Women and Sport Trophy. She was the first woman to serve as President of the St. Louis Sports Commission, she served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports, and her work led to an induction in the Boys & Girls Club of America Hall of Fame. But much of Jackie’s influence over the years has less to do with awards and more to do with her commitment and the example she has set for a new generation of young women in sport. One of these women was born in 1984, the same year that Jackie barely missed gold at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Today Lauren is a slam poet and wrote a poem about her muse, “On Woman and Wind.” She recited it during a girls’ summit at which Jackie was recognized. In the poem, Lauren recounts watching Jackie on TV, at age 4, in the 1988 Olympic Games, and following in the athlete’s graceful footsteps in track and field, running toward dreams. “You have become the first lady of your namesake,” she says. “The first lady to teach me, to run, to leap, to fly with my feet fully on the ground.”