Track and field legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s focus remains on giving back
Philanthropy and community service were always top priorities during Joyner-Kersee’s career, but now she’s all in
Jackie Joyner-Kersee dominated track and field. She’s widely known for her stellar track and field career that produced six Olympic medals, four World Outdoor Championships gold medals and earned her a spot in the National Track & Field Hall of Fame, but giving back to communities across the country is where her true passion lies.
In her most recent charitable venture, Joyner-Kersee, 55, has teamed up with Comcast for the second consecutive year to be a spokeswoman for the company’s Internet Essentials program, a comprehensive, high-speed internet adoption program that has served more than 4 million low-income Americans since its launch six years ago.
“[Comcast] sought me out, and a lot of it probably had to do with me already doing work in the community,” Joyner-Kersee said. “This fit right in my wheelhouse, and I was very honored to be asked to be the spokesperson. When you talk about Internet Essentials and bridging that digital divide, it’s just really a great program for low-income households and a comprehensive, high-speed internet adoption program.
“Access is everything. We know how important that is, and it’s required for you to do homework, or parents want to research jobs. It’s a valuable tool to have.”
The program, which is entering its fourth round in six years, will allow customers 40 hours of free out-of-home Wi-Fi access per month through Xfinity Wi-Fi hot spots. As of this year, the program will increase internet service speeds from 10/1 megabits per second (Mbps) to 15/2 Mbps and also expand the program to include low-income senior citizens from five cities and metropolitan areas to 12, according to the press release.
Joyner-Kersee believes some of the most rewarding moments she’s experienced while working with the program are the reactions from eligible families, which range anywhere from shock to tears.
“They say how elated and how grateful they are because it gives them a better quality of life, knowing that they have access to allow them to do their term papers or homework,” Joyner-Kersee said. “And then, when you’re working with seniors, some seniors are reluctant to trust anything, let alone the internet. But when they can communicate with their loved ones across the country and around the world, it opens them up.”
Donating time for a greater cause isn’t a new concept for Joyner-Kersee, who made it a point to invest in her community long before she became a track star. As a young girl, Joyner-Kersee said, programs she took part in stressed the importance of giving back, whether it be time or money.
“I got involved with my community work in the early 1980s, when it wasn’t really popular,” Joyner-Kersee said. “I wasn’t doing it because it was popular, though. I was doing it because I came up through programs where people taught you about volunteering, taught you about giving back. Giving back at that time, even when I was in school, meant coming back and sharing your knowledge. Give your time. Work on taking someone under your wing. While I was competing, I knew this was something I always wanted to always be involved in. That’s why I built my community center, and I’m back in the community trying to really share what I know.”
Community service and Joyner-Kersee’s track and field career were both top priorities that demanded long hours and solid commitment, yet Joyner-Kersee balanced the two seamlessly.
After graduating from high school, Joyner-Kersee attended UCLA on a full basketball scholarship after turning down a track scholarship from the school. Although Joyner-Kersee earned All-America honors as a basketball player, she began training for the heptathlon in hopes of making it to the Olympics.
During track and field events, Joyner-Kersee’s work ethic and athletic ability spoke for her. At the 1984 Olympic Games, Joyner-Kersee was a silver medalist in the heptathlon, and she returned in 1988 to earn gold medals in the heptathlon and long jump, setting a world heptathlon record of 7,291 points that still stands today. That same year, Joyner-Kersee founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation in an effort to provide those in need with resources to better their situations. The foundation would also cater to residents of East St. Louis, Illinois, Joyner-Kersee’s hometown.
In 1992, Joyner-Kersee earned another gold medal in the heptathlon, and bronze in the long jump. In 1996, in what would be Joyner-Kersee’s fourth and final Olympics, a hamstring injury forced her to withdraw from the heptathlon, but she still managed to earn a bronze medal in the long jump.
In 2000, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center was built in East St. Louis after the foundation raised $12 million for the 41,000-square-foot facility. The center would be used as a premier venue for youth recreation and sports. Joyner-Kersee officially retired a year later at age 38.
“It’s always tough to leave something you love doing, but the reality of it is, is that I know my body couldn’t take anymore,” Joyner-Kersee said. “So physically, you probably want to do it a little longer, but mentally, it takes a combination of both. You can have all the physical ability in the world, but mentally, if you are emotionally drained and you can’t focus, it would show in your performance. I knew I was doing a lot of community work and speaking at different events. Even though that was good, it was taking away from my training.”
Now, Joyner-Kersee is all in. Outside of her work with the Internet Essentials program, Joyner-Kersee is still hosting events through her foundation. She is now gearing up for the foundation’s largest event, the fifth annual Sequins, Suits & Sneakers Gala, which will take place in St. Louis on Oct. 26.
Although Joyner-Kersee enjoys being considered one of the greatest female athletes of all time in her sport, it feels even better to be known for her work in the community.
“It makes me feel really good because you can do something for a long time, and you do it and love it, but then you realize the relevance of it when you’re away from the sport,” she said. “And when I’m walking the streets and people just come up to me and say how much they appreciate not only what I’ve done on the field but also what I do in the community, that makes me feel real good because there’s a connection there that I didn’t even know about. It’s great when someone comes and says good things when they don’t know me. They just know my name and what I’ve done, and somehow I’ve made an impression on them.”