On September 24, 1988, Jackie Joyner-Kersee ran and jumped her way to two gold medals and world records in the heptathlon and the long jump at the Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. Her heptathlon record has still yet to be beat and she is the most decorated female athlete in Olympic track and field history. Acknowledging her accomplishments, Sports Illustrated for Women voted her the “Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century.”
Born in East St. Louis, IL, in 1962, Joyner-Kersee — named after Jackie Kennedy — was inspired to become a track and field star after watching a movie about one of history’s first famous female athletes, Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Joyner-Kersee was in high school when she first qualified for the Olympic trials in 1980, but did not make it to the games. This merely inspired Joyner-Kersee to try harder. Thanks to her drive, she excelled in the classroom and on the track and basketball court throughout high school, earning her a full scholarship to UCLA in 1980. As a UCLA student, Joyner-Kersee competed for the college basketball and track teams.
By 1984, she was ready to return to the Olympics. At 19, Joyner-Kersee won silver in the heptathlon, just losing gold by five points. Comprised of seven strength-testing events — 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter dash, long jump, javelin, and 800-meter run — the heptathlon is a true test of fitness and strength. At the 1986 Goodwill Games, Joyner-Kersee won the heptathlon and was the first athlete — male or female — to score over 7,000 points in the competition. Despite a knee injury, Joyner-Kersee made record-breaking history at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Joyner-Kersee competed again in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, ultimately winning the most medals of any female track and field athlete to compete in the Olympics — three gold, one silver and two bronze.
After she retired in 2001, Joyner-Kersee paid her success and athleticism forward by dedicating herself to social justice. She established the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation in her Illinois hometown and Athletes for Hope to encourage philanthropy among her fellow athletes.