A kind of grace : the autobiography of the world's greatest female athlete /
Jackie Joyner-Kersee with Sonja Steptoe.
New York : Warner Books, c1997.
x, 310 p. : ill.,[8] p. of plates ; 24 cm.
More Details
added author
New York : Warner Books, c1997.
general note
Includes index.
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A Look Inside
First Chapter


A sense of nervous anticipation was building in the moist and muggy Atlanta air that late July morning. It was an hour before the heptathlon competition at the 1996 Olympic Games and the serious business of preparing for combat was well underway on the warmup track. Coaches reviewed strategy on the sidelines, while their athletes limbered up on the infield. Around them, competitors of every race, nationality and shoe company affiliation paraded around the jogging track, as television crews from NBC and CNN moved into position, angling for pictures and sound bites.

Sprinkled among the group were my opponents, the world's most versatile and gifted female athletes. They included Sabine Braun of Germany, Ghada Shouaa of Syria, Natasha Sazanovich of Belarus, Denise Lewis of Great Britain and Kelly Blair of the United States. Every four years, such a group gathered at an Olympic venue to contest the heptathlon, a two-day, seven-part trial of endurance and skill. To claim victory, a woman must outperform her competitors in negotiating 100 meters of track and hurdles, clearing the high-jump bar, throwing the javelin, sprinting 200 meters, leaping into the long-jump pit, putting the shot and running 800 meters. Her reward at the culmination of the grueling ordeal is an Olympic gold medal and the designation "World's Greatest Female Athlete."

Over the past thirteen years, the event had repeatedly tested my mettle. I had conquered opponents both human and inhumane: the East Germans, the Russians, drenching rains, extreme heat, pain, exhaustion, dehydration, asthma. Between 1984 and the beginning of 1996, I won every single heptathlon I completed, posting the six highest scores in the sport's history, setting four world records, winning two World Championships, and capturing two Olympic gold medals along the way.

Impressive as my record was, I didn't feel the least bit invincible that morning in Atlanta. Splayed on my stomach across a white bath towel on the infield grass, I thought only of my ailing right thigh. The fingers of my physical therapist, Bob Forster, furiously massaged the knot of hamstring muscle and scar tissue inside the thigh, still tender from the severe pull I'd suffered three weeks earlier. Gold medals and world records were far from my mind. Given the precarious condition of my leg, my goal was simply to survive the four events on the day's schedule.

My elaborate plans for a final Olympic heptathlon triumph were slowly unraveling. I'd chosen this occasion as the perfect opportunity for a swan song. I'd made my Olympic debut at the Los Angeles Games in 1984. Now, after achieving so much on foreign soil -- a world record in Moscow, gold medals in Seoul and Barcelona, world championships in Rome and Stuttgart -- I wanted to close out my participation in this event in my homeland, with the eyes of the world watching.

There were still a few springs left in my legs for long jumping, my other specialty. But my days as a heptathlete were numbered. I still held the heptathlon world record, at 7,291 points, but the rigorous training and arduous competitions were taking a toll on my body, chipping away at my muscle mass and sapping my energy. As well, my chronic asthma condition was affecting me more and more on the track. I'd come close to dying off the track. I wanted to spend my final moment as a heptathlete on the medal stand, not on an ambulance stretcher.

I was drained emotionally, too. Dominance, I'd learned over the years, brings both adulation and attacks. No sooner had the "greatest female athlete" crown been placed on my head in 1988 than the efforts to knock it off began. I faced unfounded accusations of steroid use, heard unkind remarks about my appearance, and read hypercritical reviews of my performances. I tried to endure it all with good cheer. But in truth, the sniping hurt me deeply. If, as the critics kept saying, I was only as good as my last heptathlon performance, I wanted the final one in Atlanta to be my best of all.

But things started going awry in June at the Olympic Trials. I sprained an ankle, pulled my right hamstring, and battled a cold and an asthma attack during the meet and lost by three points to Kelly Blair, who performed magnificently as I struggled. It was my first defeat in twelve years. Then, just twenty-one days before the Olympics, the scar tissue gnarled around my right hamstring jerked away from the muscle while I was airborne over a hurdle. When the pain registered, I jumped and fell to the track, screaming in agony and rage. My leg had been obstinate since then. Each time I tried to blast out of the starting blocks or push across the shot-put ring in practice, the pain was excruciating. I hadn't been able to test the leg's strength, to employ it as I would have to in competition.

Now, with the moment at hand and my therapist's fingers furiously kneading that scar tissue and all the other tortured muscle fibers, I winced and wondered. Was my hamstring strong enough for the task ahead? How would it respond when I called on it to help me get over 100 meters of track and hurdles, to clear the high-jump bar, to provide the power to throw the javelin and, after all of that, to run 200 meters at world-class speed?

I had no idea.

* * *

As I walked into the packed Olympic Stadium, the sky turned gloomy. Raindrops dotted my legs and arms as we lined up in front of the blocks for the hurdle race. The drops became sprinkles and turned quickly into sheets of showers. The starter called us to the blocks and I insisted to myself that I was ready. Staring down my lane at the arrayed hurdles, I focused on starting strong and moving steadily forward, one step at a time.

I shot out of the blocks without pain. A good sign. I was in front heading into the series of hurdles. First, second, third, fourth. All cleared. So far, so good. Fifth, sixth ... oh, God! The hamstring pulled as I stepped over the seventh.

"Keep going," I told myself. "Don't stop. It hurts, but there are only three left."

I gathered all my strength, and tackled the eighth. My cheeks puffing furiously, I gritted my teeth to cushion the pain as I landed. I pushed on to the ninth. Another deep breath, the jump, the wince, the exhale. One more. I gritted my teeth as I cleared it. Then, a grimace at the finish line. I made it! Not only was I still in the competition, I'd won the heat. Now, to get some help for my throbbing leg.

Dripping wet, I grabbed my gear and hobbled toward my husband and coach, Bobby Kersee. I was panting and in terrible pain, but I stopped on the way for a brief interview in the downpour with Cris Collinsworth of NBC, who held an umbrella over us. Between gasps, I told him, "I want to stay positive, take it one event at a time and let my physical therapist get in there and dig out whatever's in the muscle."

We went to the coaches' room, hoping to use one of the massage tables. But they wouldn't allow Bobby inside, even though he was my coach, because he didn't have the proper pass. So, the three of us, Bobby, Bob the therapist and I, climbed a flight of stairs inside the stadium to the concession area, where we found a little-used handicap-access ramp. I threw down a towel and stretched out on my stomach. Bobby and Bob went to work with ice packs and massaging hands to quiet the spasms inside my thigh. Spectators watching us from their seats applauded and shouted encouragement. "We love you, Jackie!" "You're the best!" "Good luck!"

Hearing them, I wished with all my heart that I'd be able to continue.

The spasms eventually subsided. And after an hour-and-a-half rain delay, the heptathletes were moving to the high-jump apron. The nice people who'd watched my therapy session cheered as I made my way down to the field. I took a practice jump at a very low height and knocked the bar down. I knew I was in trouble. But I refused to surrender. I walked across the track to the stadium railing, where Bobby was standing. "It feels like it's pulling," I said. "If I accelerate, I don't know what will happen. I'll try the next height and see."

I turned and walked away. As I crossed the track and reached the high-jump apron, I heard Bobby's voice over my shoulder. He'd jumped over the railing and was walking up behind me. "That's it, Jackie," he shouted. "I'm not going to let you do this."

I knew if he was on the track I was already finished in the competition because he didn't have a pass. But I protested anyway. "No, Bobby, I want to try. Let me at least try."

He led me to the tent where the heptathletes had gathered. We sat on the grass. He looked at me and said, "I've watched you for twelve years give everything you've got. I'm no longer going to allow you to do this. It's time to go."

"Bobby, I just want to try."

"No, Jackie, this isn't a coach-athlete thing. This is your husband telling you it's time for you to go."

It was over. I sat there a good three to five minutes absorbing the impact, while Bobby told the officials I was withdrawing. I tried to hold back the tears, but they poured out of my eyes, down my cheeks. Bobby started crying, too. I leaned against him and put my head on his shoulder. He put his arm around me. We sobbed together.

Ghada Shouaa, a Syrian heptathlete, came over and hugged me. Then she kissed me on both cheeks. She also kissed Bobby. That was the greatest compliment a competitor could have paid me. Sabine Braun of Germany came over and patted me on the back. It was a touching gesture considering our tense rivalry. I gathered my paraphernalia and walked off the track with Bobby. None of the spectators knew what was happening, so there was no reaction. We walked past a wall of reporters. I was too upset to talk. If I had tried to open my mouth and speak, I would have burst into tears.

Bob, Bobby and I walked back to the hotel, just a few blocks from the stadium, in silence. With the track and field events underway, the streets around the stadium were deserted and deadly quiet. It was like being in a funeral procession. A funeral for my dead dream.

* * *

Within minutes our hotel room filled with our friends: my high school track coach, Nino Fennoy, and his friend Toni; my aunt Della; my brother, Al, and sister-in-law, Florence; Bobby's best friend, Dave Harris, and his wife; my orthopedist, Dr. Rick Lehman; Bobby's sister Debra; Valerie Brisco, Jeanette Bolden and Valarie Foster, my assistant. Dave and his wife walked in wearing custom-printed caps that read, "JJK STILL NO. 1."

As each visitor came in and saw me, there was a new round of hugs, kisses and tears. The room was filled with warm affection. After what we'd just been through, it was the perfect tonic for Bobby and me. What began as the worst of days was ending as the best.

The phone rang nonstop, once the word got out that I'd withdrawn. Reporters wanted to interview us. I still couldn't talk about what had happened. Bobby agreed to go to the broadcast center for an interview with NBC's Dwight Stones. During the telecast, Tom Hammond and Dwight discussed my career, tracing the ups and downs. Their report showed scenes of Bobby yelling at me and comforting me, and replayed moments from my injuries and my victories.

Tom and Dwight said such wonderful things. For the first time in my career, I felt appreciated and respected for my accomplishments. "She is clearly the greatest female athlete of her day," Tom said. "If judged by her heart, then surely the greatest of all time." Tears came to my eyes.

Then Bobby's face appeared on screen. I could see how red his eyes were through his tinted glasses. As he described our conversation before I withdrew, he choked up and tears filled his eyes. In the hotel room we were all crying.

"Jackie Joyner-Kersee is very, very important to track and field," Dwight said in conclusion. "There's no argument that she is the greatest female athlete of all time."

Most people never get to hear such tributes, because they're bestowed after they die, at their funeral. I felt so privileged to hear them while I was alive. It was a shining moment for me at a time of darkness.

Bobby returned to the hotel room just in time for a call from Bill Cosby, our friend and trusted advisor for many years. Bill said he was thinking about us. Then, he teased me about the fight he figured Bobby and I were having about the decision to withdraw. It made me laugh. "I know you and Bob are going to get into it," he said. "But why don't you listen to your husband one time?"

Then he talked to Bobby and kidded him, "Try not to be so evil to your wife, man."

Flowers arrived throughout the day. One vase was from Aretha Franklin. Another arrangement arrived from Arsenio Hall. Lionel Richie also sent a bouquet. Late that night, we received a message that President Clinton was trying to reach us. He left a number to the retreat at Camp David, Maryland.

I was dumbfounded. To think that the President would take the time to call me and offer his support! I hadn't even won anything. Bobby called the number right after reading me the note. It was about 11:00 P.M. We worried that it was too late. But the President told us to call, so we did.

When Bobby handed me the receiver and I heard President Clinton say, "Hi, Jackie," I was speechless. He told me I'd done a lot to inspire the youth of the nation. Of all the nice things he said during the conversation, that compliment made me proudest. He also said he believed that Bobby had made the right decision in pulling me from the heptathlon, because it preserved my chance to come back for the long jump. I smiled as I listened to him, but I was tongue-tied. All I could manage was "thank you, Mr. President."

* * *

The question on everyone's mind after my withdrawal was whether I had a realistic chance of making it back to the track for the long jump. I had four and a half days to rest, but the hurdle race had further weakened the muscle. Subjecting it to additional stress would be like playing Russian roulette. It could rip the very next time I tried to run hard. That would surely end my athletic career, and possibly maim me for life.

But in my mind, the decision came down to this: I couldn't let that tearful withdrawal stand as my final Olympic act. Though my entire athletic career might be at risk, I knew what I had to do. It was time to reach deep into the core of myself, to call on the voices from my past -- alternately sympathetic, challenging, even derisive -- that had urged me on over thirty-four years of living and competing. At the appointed hour, I would show up at the long-jump pit, and hope and pray I could respond one last time.

Excerpted from A Kind of Grace by Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Sonja Steptoe. Copyright © 1997 by Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1997-11-01:
Currently with the Women's American Basketball League, Joyner-Kersey is best known as an Olympic gold medalist in the heptathlon. This is the story of her triumphs over poverty, family tragedy, and near-fatal asthma attacks. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1997-09-01:
After six Olympic medals and five world records, most achieved in the grueling heptathalon, Joyner-Kersee can indeed lay claim to being the "greatest." Here, with Sports Illustrated senior editor Steptoe, she tells of her rise to the top, starting with her childhood in East St. Louis, Ill., an industrial town on a downhill slide. She was raised in a loving if strict family, and early on found a coach convinced of her ability to keep advancing in her sports, both basketball and track. Nationwide honors began to come her way when she was in high school and continued at UCLA, where she claims she did not get the coaching she required. Then on the scene came Robert Kersee, who began as her coach, then became her husband. Besides surmounting the obstacles of being African American, poor and troubled by leg problems, probably from overparticipation in sports, Joyner-Kersee continues to face a far greater obstacle: severe asthma. Because she's sometimes careless about taking her medication, she has suffered life-threatening seizures. Her story is inspiring and absorbing. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, June 1997
Kirkus Reviews, August 1997
Publishers Weekly, September 1997
Library Journal, November 1997
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Bowker Data Service Summary
Jackie Joyner-Kersee is one of the world's most successful athletes, and has dominated the women's decathlon for many years. With this book, Jackie discusses how she has overcome her difficult early years to rise to the top.
Main Description
Jackie is known throughout the world as the best female athlete ever - the winner of six Olympic medals, three of them gold; the current world-record holder in the heptathlon (the women's version of the male decathlon); the one-time world-record holder in the long jump; and an All-America basketball player. She grew up in East St. Louis in a house "little more than wallpaper and sticks". Her parents were poor teenagers when they married. She made her first long-jump pit in her backyard from borrowed playground sand. One of her first performances went unrecorded because of the color of her skin. Yet Jackie not only had an innate ability to conquer speed and distance, but possessed an irrepressible personality and a deep, unshakable love of sport. As she harnessed her talents, Jackie began an amazing string of multisport successes. In the midst of it all, she would try to hold her family together after her mother's tragic early death (Mary was only 37), and face her own devastating grief. As she climbed the dizzying heights of international and Olympic competition, she would face relentless media attention that escalated when she married Bob Kersee, her enormously successful - and controversial - coach. As she reached her profession's peak, she would battle life-threatening asthma, unfounded accusations of drug-induced performance enhancement, and recurring injuries. Ultimately, she would unite her experience and determination to achieve the most meaningful victories of all - those that shape and build lives beyond the field.

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