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Joyner-Kersee puts on finishing touch

With the right 800-meter effort, the heptathlete wins in world-record fashion at Seoul Games in 1988.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 1999


For four years, Jackie Joyner-Kersee worked to wash away the memory of the Los Angeles Olympics.

There, in 1984, she'd had a gold medal within her grasp, only to run out of gas and run one of the poorest 800-meter races of her career in final event of the heptathlon.

One-third of a second kept her from that triumph. One-third of a second cost her five points and left her to settle for the silver medal.

Joyner-Kersee had won nine consecutive heptathlons before Los Angeles. Four times she had exceeded 7,000 points. No one else had come close.

Now, in Seoul, she was the overwhelming favorite to win the seven-event, two-day competition, whose champion rightfully would be acclaimed the world's finest all-around woman athlete.

She had started strongly on Friday, running the 100-meter hurdles in a personal-best 12.69 seconds, but twisted her left knee in the high jump, managing to clear the bar at 6 feet, 11/4 inches, well off her 6-4 best.

Despite the soreness in the knee, Joyner-Kersee exceeded her personal best in the shot put with a toss of 51-10, then ran the 200 in 22.56 seconds, again her best ever.

Only then did she undergo treatment for the injured knee. "I was scared after the first day," she recalled. "I was afraid my leg might stiffen up overnight."

On Sept. 24, she felt soreness in the knee as she approached the runway for the long jump. To avoid further damage, she jumped off the right foot rather than the left she usually planted to get airborne -- and set an Olympic heptathlon long-jump record of 23-101/4.

But the knee gave her trouble in the javelin and her disappointing 149-10 throw filled her mind with doubts as she prepared for the 800.

Only a total collapse could keep her from the gold. She was within reach of the world record she had set two months earlier at the Olympic Trials. But she would have to run about 2:11. Her best ever was 2:09.

She told herself not to get caught up in the fast pace the Europeans would run, to avoid the exhaustion of four years earlier. "The gold medal is mine," she said to herself. "The world record can wait."

With all other events -- Ben Johnson's victory over Carl Lewis in the 100 final, wins by Florence Griffith Joyner and Edwin Moses in their preliminary races -- long since completed, the stadium was so empty that Bob Kersee, her coach and husband, could yell encouragement from a front-row seat near the finish line.

Joyner-Kersee was fifth across the finish line. She looked at her watch. Bob Kersee already knew her time: 2:08.51. It had earned her 987 points.

"You got the world record!" Kersee shouted as he vaulted the railing and ran to her. She had finished with 7,291 points, 76 more than her previous world record and 394 ahead of silver medalist Sabine John of East Germany.

"I feel blessed," Joyner-Kersee said. "I think back to 1976 when I saw the Olympics and said I wanted to be in them because I would be on TV. It was a struggle at times, but I'm proud."

Four days later, Joyner-Kersee broke the Olympic long-jump record to win another gold. Four years later at Barcelona she won long-jump silver -- and remained the world's finest all-around woman athlete, winning heptathlon gold again.


-- Information from the New York Times, and 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History by Bud Greenspan (General Publishing Group), was used in this report.

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