Perhaps no winner of the Musial Award has more in common with its namesake than Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Like Stan, she is woven into the sports fabric of the St. Louis region. Her accomplishments on and off the track have become integral to its identity as one of America’s best sports cities and the home to America’s best sports. She has become so much a part of the community that we take her achievements, generosity and grace for granted. From time to time, we tend to forget. It’s time to remember. And it’s time to honor her.
Jackie started her life’s journey by leaping over huge obstacles. She rose above poverty, growing up in a house in East St. Louis with no heat and few material possessions. She overcame physical limitations, battling severe asthma while achieving more on the field than any female athlete in the last half-century. Her college athletic career actually began with a basketball scholarship to UCLA, where she also ran track. Multisport athletes were as unheard of then as now, and Jackie’s rank among the school’s career leaders in scoring, rebounding and games played gets lost amid her later achievements, which include:
Her world record of 7,291 points in the heptathlon has stood for almost 30 years, and she has been hailed as the greatest female athlete of the 20th century. Jackie’s success inspired an extended family of East St. Louis athletes to greatness. The first was her brother, Al, 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump. She classifies Mizzou men’s basketball coach and former NBA star Cuonzo Martin as “like a little brother to me.” And Dawn Harper Nelson, who won gold in 2008 and silver in 2012 in the 110-meter hurdles, considers Jackie a big sister.
After retiring as an athlete, Jackie’s mission spread to all children of East St. Louis. She established the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, which funded construction of the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center. It operates today in partnership with the East St. Louis School District to offer after-school athletic and education programs, as well as adult financial and computer literacy programs.
Winner of the Jack Kelly Fair Play award, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s sportsmanship honor, Jackie has spread her influence nationally. She has served as a board member of USA Track & Field and as a member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. She also co-founded Athletes for Hope, which helps professional athletes get involved in charitable causes. From its original founders, which also include last year’s Musial Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Cal Ripken, Jr., the group has grown to include more than 3,000 athletes from the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB and the Olympic movement.
But for all her profound achievements and her national influence on sports and sportsmanship, what makes her most like Stan are the little moments, like this one from 1998: Jackie had just competed in the U.S. Open Track & Field event at SIU-Edwardsville and was the guest of honor at a post-meet celebration. Some of the event staff lingered at the track long after the meet, tying up loose ends. As they made their way to their cars, they debated whether it was even worth stopping by the reception. Surely, the festivities had wound down and Jackie had gone home long ago. Instead, they found Jackie in the parking lot in Edwardsville, still signing autographs. Dozens of fans remained in line, even at that late hour, and she stayed until each had shared a moment with her. All that was missing was a guy playing harmonica.