Jackie Joyner-Kersee is a six-time Olympic medalist, a four-time world champion and one of the greatest track and field athletes of all time. Pretty Tough contributor Cara Hawkins recently caught up with Joyner-Kersee to look back on her career and to discuss her involvement with a new national youth activity initiative. “Run Jump Throw” is an educational program developed by USA Track & Field (USATF ) and Hershey that introduces kids ages 7 through 12 to the basic skills of running, jumping and throwing through track and field.
CH: How were you first introduced to the sport of track & field and what are some of your earliest memories?
JJK: I started out at a recreation center and in a park where I would just run and jump and actually throw a softball. That’s how I was introduced. I think it’s the premise behind -knowing that, it doesn’t matter what sport, knowing how to run jump and throw are valuable.
CH: Hershey will underwrite at least 1,000 youth scholarships to provide free USATF memberships to underserved children interested in pursuing track and field. How do you think this will bolster participation within the sport?
JJK: I think the partnership between USATF and Hershey will bolster the sport in a very positive way. That’s one of the great things about USA Track & Field reaching out to support our youth. We know that most of our state and national and Olympic champions come from grassroots programs. With two iconic brands like USATF and Hershey supporting young athletes – it’s a winning a combination.
CH: You were successful early in your career making the Olympic trials in 1980, what was it like competing in the trials as a high school athlete?
Competing as a high school athlete was nerve-wracking. I didn’t know what to expect but it taught me a lot about myself. I learned I loved what I’m doing and I wanted to figure out how to continue. One lesson I learned was not to second guess myself – that was important – and I learned not only to second guess myself but not to second guess my coaches as well and the people who prepared me.
CH: What do you think of the youth movement today in track & field with young athletes like Mary Cain and Ajee Wilson being able to compete on a global stage?
JJK: There is so much promise in the sport of track & field. It’s great to see Mary Cain and AJee Wilson being able to compete on the global stage. They are part of a great group of athletes and that’s why it’s important to introduce track & field to kids so we don’t want to lose them to other sports. Track & field tends to level off after high school, going into college, and one of the great things about USATF is they can help fill the void and can continue to contribute to support the growth of track & field young athletes. They provide resources and allow them to go on to the next level.
CH: Why do you think Run Jump Throw is important to the sport? What do you hope it teaches youth athletes?
JJK: The reason Run Jump Throw is important to track & field is because it brings us back to the basics – the basic fundamentals. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re doing, you have to run, jump, and throw. Kids learn by doing and if they learn proper technique at an early age, it’s going to help with their development and they’ll grow and stay in the sport. Young athletes also learn about themselves and find their passion. It doesn’t take a lot of money to go to a park and run, jump or throw. If it’s in your heart, if it’s something you want to do, you’ll find a way to make it happen.
CH: What are some lessons that track & field taught you?
JJK: Track & field taught me to never give up on myself or second guess myself. It taught me to stick with the plan regardless if something goes wrong, particularly in a multi-event competition. I can be running really well in the hurdles and then maybe the long jump isn’t going to well. Just stay positive, see it through. and make it happen.
CH: You had a very successful career despite having asthma, how did you learn to overcome such a hurdle?
JJK: I had to educate myself about asthma and understand it’s a disease. If I didn’t control it, my dreams would be hard to achieve. I had to respect asthma, just like i respect an opponent. I did everything I could to control it, sometimes you can’t control it, but I was able to maintain.
CH: How did being considered the world’s greatest female athlete change your life or the way people perceived or treated you?
JJK: I’m a realist. I appreciate all the acknowledgment but I don’t take it for granted. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of people working with me to achieve that standard in the eyes of others. To me, I’m just Jackie , and although I worked really hard I don’t want to lose sight of that. I just want people to appreciate Jackie the person rather than the accolades.
CH: You still hold the world record for the Hepthalon, did you ever expect the record to hold for 26 years?
JJK: I didn’t expect the record to hold for so long. It’s pretty amazing. I’m watching a number of girls, and encouraging them to stay with the multi-events. I want to continue to convince multi-talented girls to stay with the multi-events. I can see the record being broken but we need to back the multi-event females better in this country. More young ladies need to learn multi-events. Most young ladies focus on single events. I did multi-events coming up. I wasn’t a great hurdler but I became a better hurdler. You’ve got to have the support to compete in the multi-events. I’m watching girls at the collegiate level right now and hopefully they’ll have the support they need. I believe if kids stay with it they can be medal contenders and break my record.
(laughs) We already have three events to get them started: Run, jump and throw.
Launching in 2015, Run Jump Throw will utilize a curriculum developed by USATF. Kids around the country will have the opportunity to participate in fun, learning clinic-style events designed to build basic running, jumping and throwing skills and have fun exploring track and field. Run Jump Throw
Utilizing the volunteer-based model that made HERSHEY’S Track & Field Games successful since 1975, Run Jump Throw events will offer a participation-based model for organizers and participants. USATF will supervise the program. Fundamental skills taught as part of the curriculum will include warm-up, proper running technique for sprinting and distance running, jumping and throwing skills. The clinics will be followed by a “practice meet” for kids to apply their skills.
Children participating in Run Jump Throw will be encouraged to continue to pursue the sport, either through parks and recreation programs, school programs or through USATF clubs and associations.