East St. Louis, Ill., has the look of a place forsaken, where burned-out homes are outnumbered only by abandoned housing projects and the remnants of factories, packing plants and weed-strewn rail yards. But for all of its bleakness, East St. Louis can cherish at least one distinction: It is a prolific incubator of track stars. From Lincoln High School alone, Coach Nino Fennoy has sent more than 50 graduates to college on track scholarships over the past 14 years. None has outperformed Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a double gold medalist at last summer’s Seoul Olympics, who was welcomed home by her town and her school as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend drew near.
Joyner-Kersee, 26, returns to East St. Louis frequently, but since Seoul her visits have been special occasions. Her most recent homecoming began across the Mississippi River at the Kiel Opera House in St. Louis, where the world record holder in the heptathlon (7,291 points) and Olympic record holder in the women’s longjump (24’3½”) was introduced to 2,000 shrieking teenagers as “the outstanding, beautiful, one of the fastest running and jumping and stomping women in history!” She responded by speaking about goals and dreams, about “bringing something back to this community [and those who] helped you on the way.”
Then she crossed the Mississippi to Lincoln High. There, Coach Fennoy remembered her as a 9-year-old enrolled in a special community track program. “She was just the fourth or fifth fastest in her group,” Fennoy says. “But she had an air of being on a mission. Jackie struggled along in the pack until, at 13, she came into her own. It was as if someone pushed a button and said, ‘It’s your time.’ ”
Joyner-Kersee hasn’t forgotten. Her parents had married as teenagers; her father did odd jobs until he found work as a railway brakeman. The second of four children, Jackie remembers the poverty that forced the family to sleep in the kitchen because the stove was the only source of heat. “We would have no food in the house, so we would eat mayonnaise sandwiches, which were good,” she says with equanimity. “Being able to go through the struggle is the reason why I am where I am today.”
Jackie’s parents were strict—any D’s or failures in school meant no outdoor playtime during the next marking period. “I understood,” she says. “I felt that as the oldest girl I was expected to set an example.” And she did. At 18, a bright student and a versatile athlete, she went to UCLA on a basketball scholarship. But a few months later her mother died from meningitis. While an aunt took care of Jackie’s two younger sisters, she and her older brother, Al (the triple-jump gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics), vowed to maintain family solidarity. Jackie also drew support from a UCLA track coach named Bob Kersee, who later became her personal coach and, in 1986, her husband.
Because of her stellar performance in the grueling heptathlon, which consists of three running and four field events, Joyner-Kersee has been described as the world’s best all-around woman athlete. But life at the top has also made her a bigger target. In Seoul, a Brazilian athlete offhandedly suggested that Jackie, despite her straight-arrow reputation, must be on steroids. “It really hurt me,” she admits, “especially knowing that the statements made were incorrect.” She believes that the accusation may be one reason she has received few of the lucrative endorsements and commercial contracts that Olympic champions have come to expect.
Other rumors have also stung, particularly talk of feuding between Jackie and Florence Griffith Joyner, her glamorous sister-in-law who came home from Seoul with three gold medals of her own. Joyner-Kersee insists there is no bad blood between herself and the flashier Flo-Jo, who dropped Bob Kersee as her coach last summer in favor of her husband, Al. “We are family, and that’s more important than gold medals,” she says. Jackie, who intends to compete in track for the foreseeable future, makes a point of being true to herself.
What she has always been is a hometown girl. She and Kersee even honeymooned in East St. Louis. Where others see urban blight, she sees hope. Like so many buildings there today, the Mary Brown Community Center, where Jackie began her run to glory, is now an abandoned hulk. But Joyner-Kersee, largely through personal appearances, has raised about $40,000 toward the $500,000 needed to reopen the center. “East St. Louis has been called a bad place, but I feel that there are a lot of people here who care about human beings being human,” she says. “All we need to do is to get it together, and we can become a great city.”
—Dan Chu, and Beth Austin in East St. Louis