Going Home to Inspire

Jackie Joyner-Kersee never forgets where she came from. The Olympic track star is committed to making life better for kids.

September 17, 2014

Though she retired from athletic competition in 2000, six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee is still all about winning. The former track-and-field superstar is focused on helping young people in her long-struggling hometown of East St. Louis, Ill., be the best they can be, regardless of the obstacles. She recalls her own hurdles vividly. When she got involved with sports at age 9, Joyner-Kersee says, she was hardly a star. “I wasn’t the best girl out there, and that gave me my drive; I wanted to be the best,” she says. At 14, she watched the 1976 Summer Olympics on TV and decided then to make becoming an Olympian her goal.

Her college years at UCLA were filled with highs and lows. She excelled at both track and field and basketball, for which she earned a scholarship. But during that time, Joyner-Kersee was also diagnosed with asthma and hid the news from her coaches until she realized it was a disease that could be controlled. Her mother’s sudden death from meningitis during her freshman year was devastating—but motivated her to keep striving to honor her mother’s memory.

Having competed in four Olympic Games, Joyner-Kersee now dedicates her time to helping underprivileged youth in her town. “It’s so important that the young people in the community see me here and that we have a dialogue,” she says. “I want them to know that when you work hard in life and you have a dream, there are infinite possibilities.”

In 1988, she launched the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, which provides education, sports, and other programs for youth in the East St. Louis area. Her organization’s greatest accomplishment was the completion of a much-needed community center on 36 acres of land in 2000. More than a decade later, it remains a hub of activity. “For me, it was a dream come true,” she says.