Biography of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Record-Setting Olympic Athlete

Track and Field Olympian

1988 Olympic Trials - Heptathlon 200 meters
Jackie Joyner-Kerasee competes in the 1988 Olympic Trials - Heptathlon 200 meters. David Madison / Getty Images

Born Jacqueline Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee (born March 3, 1962) is an American track and field athlete. With a decorated career spanning from the 1980s until 2001, she set several records in her specialties (the heptathlon and the long jump) and won a great number of championships and recognitions over the years.

Fast Facts: Jackie Joyner-Kersee

  • Full Name: Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee (neè Jacqueline Joyner)
  • Occupation: Track and field athlete
  • Born: May 3, 1962 in East St. Louis, Illinois
  • Known For: One of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, Joyner-Kersee won six Olympic medals and several other championships and set records in the heptathlon and long jump.
  • Spouse: Bob Kersee (m. 1986)

Early Life

Jackie Joyner-Kersee was born in 1962 in East St. Louis, Illinois. She is the second child and eldest daughter of Alfred and Mary Joyner. Her parents were still in their teens at the time, and struggled to provide for their growing family; Mary became a nurse's aide, while Alfred worked in construction. They christened their first daughter Jacqueline after then-first-lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The family story is that one of her grandmothers had declared, "Some day this girl will be the first lady of something." The Joyners went on to have two more daughters, Angela and Deborah.

As a teen, Jackie was growing up too fast for Mary, who knew the difficulty of life as a teenage mother. Mary told Jackie and her older brother, Al, that they couldn't date until they were 18. Jackie and Al focused on athletics instead of dating. Jackie enrolled in the new track program at the local Mary Brown Community Center, where she had been studying modern dance.

Jackie was apparently inspired after seeing a documentary about Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the trailblazing track star and golfer. Zaharias was named the greatest female athlete of the first half of the 20th century. In a moment of everything coming full circle, when Sports Illustrated for Women ranked the greatest female athletes of the century, Zaharias was chosen for second place - just behind Joyner-Kersee.

Al, who went on to win gold at the 1984 Olympics and marry star runner Florence Griffith, became Jackie's training partner and support, and vice versa. Al Joyner recalls that "I remember Jackie and me crying together in a back room in that house, swearing that someday we were going to make it. Make it out. Make things different."

Rising Star

Jackie didn't win many races at first, but she became inspired when she watched the 1976 Summer Olympics on television, and decided that "I wanted to go. I wanted to be on TV, too." At the age of 14, Jackie won the first of four straight national junior pentathlon championships.

At Lincoln High School she was a state champion in both track and basketball - the Lincoln High girls' team won by an average of more than 52 points per game in her senior year. She also played volleyball and encouraged her brother in his athletic career, and she graduated in the top ten percent of her class.

Jackie chose to attend the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on a basketball scholarship, entering in the fall of 1980. That year, her mother died, suddenly, at 37, from meningitis. After her mother's funeral, Jackie determined to work even harder, to honor her mother's desire for her success.

When she returned to college, she was offered support by Bob Kersee, an assistant track coach. Kersee saw Jackie's all-round athletic potential and convinced her that multi-event track should be her sport. He was so sure of her talent that he threatened to quit his job if the university did not allow her to switch from basketball to the heptathlon. The university agreed, and Kersee became Joyner's coach.

Olympic and Later Career

In 1984, at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, Jackie Joyner won the Olympic silver medal in the heptathlon. In 1985, she set an American record in the long jump, at 23 ft. 9 in. (7.45 m.). On January 11, 1986, she married Bob Kersee and changed her name to Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She went on that year to set a new world record in the heptathlon at the Goodwill Games in Moscow, with 7,148 points, becoming first woman to surpass 7,000 points. She beat her own record just three weeks later, scoring 7,158 points in the U.S. Olympic Festival in Houston, Texas. For these achievements, she received both the James E. Sullivan Award and the Jesse Owens Award for 1986.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 1985
Jackie Joyner-Kersee celebrating after a 1985 competition. Photo: Tony Duffy / Getty Images. Getty Images / Tony Duffy

Jackie Joyner-Kersee won many more events, titles and awards over the next fifteen years. She returned to the Olympics three more times, in 1988, 1992, and 1996, ending her career with six Olympic medals: three golds, a silver, and two bronzes. At the World Championships, she was a two-time gold medalist in the heptathlon and in the long jump. She retired from track & field competition on February 1, 2001, after failing to qualify for the 2000 Olympics.

Among her athletic honors are:

  • Women in Sport Trophy, International Olympic Committee (IOC), 2007
  • USA Track & Field (USATF) Hall of Fame, 2004
  • International Women's Sports Hall of Fame, 1993
  • Athlete of the Year (first woman chosen for this honor), Sporting News, 1988
  • Sportswoman of the Year, US Olympic Committee (USOC), 1987
  • Female Athlete of the Year, Associated Press, 1987
  • Woman Athlete of the Year, Track & Field News, 1986, 1987, 1994
  • Broderick Cup (top female collegiate athlete in US), American Athletic Union (AAU), 1984-85

Joyner-Kersee posted the six highest scores ever earned in the heptathlon. Her top score is 7,291, which won her the gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea.

After her competitive career came to an end, Joyner-Kersee turned her attention to philanthropic work. Back in 1988, she had created the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, an organization founded to provide youth, adults, and families with the resources to improve their quality of life and to enhance communities worldwide.

In 2000, the foundation opened the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in Joyner-Kersee's hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois. The JJK Center provides services to thousands of families and youth in the metropolitan St. Louis area. Joyner-Kersee also travels widely as a motivational speaker.

Along with several other legendary athletes, including Andre Agassi, Muhammed Ali, Tony Hawk, Jeff Gordon, and Mia Hamm, Joyner-Kersee co-founded the organization Athletes For Hope in 2007. The charity works to encourage professional athletes to get involved in their communities and in charitable causes, while also connecting non-athletes to get involved with their home communities and make a difference.


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  • Lansbury, Jennifer H. A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America. , 2014.