Not every athlete becomes legendary. Not every athlete can say that they were one of the greatest in the world. Not every athlete can say that they went beyond their sport and are true activists for change. I know one who can, Jackie. Joyner. Kersee. Not only is Jackie Joyner-Kersee track and field royalty but she is the quintessential activist athlete. She was the first American to win gold in the long jump and the first woman to earn more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon. Her three gold, one silver and two bronze medals were earned over the span of four Olympic Games, but her determination to improve the lives of others has spanned over her entire lifetime. Her Foundation, that has raised over $12 million, improves the lives of children and families in impoverished, often forgotten about East St. Louis. And her latest endeavor is bringing technology to large groups of underserved people. When you talk about athletes who use their platform to bring the change they want to see, Jackie Joyner-Kersee is in fact, one of the greats.
Since retiring you’ve remained active in track and field as a member of the Board of Directors of USA Track and Field. How is it experiencing the sport from the business and leadership side of things?
You know, it’s quite different from being inside the arena. Helping to shape policies in hopes of doing what’s best for our athletes and our various entities has been amazing. Being on the board has opened my eyes to what it really takes to keep the organization going and growing. We have a great CEO, Max Siegel, who’s gotten us some new great sponsorship that has benefitted the athletes. He’s really made a difference in accommodating our officials, making sure they’re taken care of. Seeing how being a leader in the organization can really impact every aspect of the sport has me thinking about running for President.
Jackie for President! I like that. On the philanthropic side of things you have partnered with Comcast and its Internet Essentials program. What’s that about?
Yes, I’ve recently become a spokesperson for Comcast Internet Essentials. One of the great things about that is that it allows us to bridge the digital divide, the gap between those who have access to the internet and those who don’t. We, and by we I mean those who have the internet, oftentimes take for granted that everyone has access to it, but that’s not really true. We’re helping to give people a level playing field by bringing the internet into their homes. In-home internet gives people the ability to apply for jobs and gives students the ability to do their research even when the library is closed. Without this access, people fall behind without them even realizing it.
As an athlete, how can having the internet improve your performances?
If I had the internet when I was competing, if I would’ve been able to pull up my workouts and technique in real-time to help me correct something or develop innovative strategy, it would have made a huge difference. For an athlete to be able to pull up their classroom assignments from anywhere also helps them better manage their time.
Technology really can be a difference maker. In addition to your work with Comcast Internet Essentials, you have a longstanding non-profit called the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation. You all have been influencing the lives of kids and their families since 1995. To what do you attribute your success?
I think that being in the community is so important and it’s hard work, but our commitment to our mission has really been key. The challenges have definitely come. We’ve worked hard to improve and implement new things. We’ve had to make a lot of changes, for instance, in the way we fundraise. We’ve had to look to and get funding from people who never used to give. But through that we always remember to stay true to our mission. We’ve also been allowed to flourish because we’ve had a strong board and people who believe in the mission. We know that we can’t be everything to everyone, but we have a community center where everyone really supports and believes in our mission.
So speaking of the mission, why do you think that it’s important that the Foundation focus on sports, academics and leadership instead of just one?
Well first, it’s because it’s in line with the Foundation’s founder. Lol We really use sports as a hook to get them in the door because life is bigger than sports. Through sports we can expose our kids to so much else, like making sure they can read on grade level and introducing them to our STEM program and the opportunities in STEM. So whether they choose to continue in sports or not, their quality of life won’t be diminished.
So from the sports side, the curriculum we’ve developed (based on my program, Winning in Life) teaches that the same discipline that you use to on the athletic field to be successful is the same discipline you will need to be successful in school and in the professional world. So everything overlaps.
Was it difficult for you to transfer the discipline you had in sports to your life as a public figure?
I don’t like to say that things are easy. I believe in planning and setting goals. Sometimes things don’t work out according to the plan, but I always saw myself speaking and helping others. At the time I didn’t even know there was an arena for that. As a young girl, the people who worked with me just taught me that that’s what you do; give back to pay it forward. So that’s always been a part of my mission. I always knew that that athletics was just a gift I was blessed with, and that there would be someone else to come after me. So I decided pretty early on that I wanted to move beyond track and field and help others.
Do you have any advice for other athletes who are trying to make their transition to life after sports?
I would say, stay true to who you are and surround yourself with pillars that will give you the strength as you transition. And we use the word transition, but really, for me, it was all an extension of myself. So I never had to reinvent myself, I just had to make sure that I attacked life after track with the same devotion, give the commitment, I gave to track.
What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
I want my legacy to be based on the success of the people who come through the doors of the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation. I want to be known by the lives we’ve changed and horizons we’ve broadened in people who have left their environments to better themselves but come back to their neighborhoods to make a difference.
I think you’re doing an excellent job at that. A question that we like to ask of our interviewees is who is the GladidatHer who has been most influential in your life?
My mom. She is no longer here, but she was my GladiatHer. She was tough and fearless without even knowing she was fearless. She laid the ground work for me.
So how can people keep up with you these days?
I’m at JJoynerKersee on Twitter…I’m working on building my followers, so follow me on Twitter! Lol The Foundation’s website is JJKFoundation.org and to learn more about Comcast Internet Essentials, visit InternetEssentials.com.
In a time when athletes are being punished, ridiculed and misunderstood for their movements against injustice and inequality. Jackie Joyner-Kersee reminds us of the power that our revered athletes possess to effectuate change, to move beyond their sports and inspire people to see beyond their circumstances to aspire for greatness. I can only hope that more of them continue to follow in the path she’s laid and continues to lay in their own ways.