She is, in my opinion, the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.
At the invitation of Lexington’s Sharrieffa Barksdale, her teammate at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, “JJK” will be instructing at a three-day track and field camp next week — June 7-9, Monday through Wednesday — at Mercer County High School. (That’s a change from the original site plan, Henry Clay.)
JJK won a silver medal in the heptathlon at the 1984 Olympics (while brother Al Joyner won gold in the triple jump).
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, JJK won gold in the heptathlon and the long jump. Her heptathlon score of 7,291 points remains the world record.
At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, she successfully defended her heptathlon gold and added a bronze in the long jump.
Finally, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, JJK netted a hard-earned bronze in the long jump.
The camp will have split sessions each day: 9 a.m.-noon for ages 7-11, and 1-4 p.m. for ages 12-18. Cost for three days is $300, and $200 for coaches. Some scholarships may be available.
For more information, call Barksdale at (859) 519-7131, or e-mail at Blairs3833@yahoo.com.
Barksdale, former American record-holder in the 400-meter hurdles, also will be an instructor.
As for JJK, she had plenty to say during a recent phone interview.
Question: What you’re doing these days?
Answer: “Actually doing camps, clinics, working with young people and really a part of wellness and fitness. Everybody’s on this obesity kick but, to me, it’s about having people be fit for life. Sharrieffa, who is a good friend of mine, we got to talking and we were just talking about some of the basics that we feel some of our kids are missing at a very young age. Let alone trying to become world-class athletes. It’s just really learning the basic fundamentals. So, with me, basically, doing a lot of after-school programs and motivational talks. I’m an asthmatic myself, so I try to bring awareness to asthma. So that’s it, in a nutshell.”
Q: Where do you work out of?
A: Out of St. Louis. … St. Louis, but I do a lot of my work in East St. Louis (Illinois, her hometown).”
Q: You’ve done a lot for East St. Louis over the years …
A: That will always be home base. … And then my husband (Bobby Kersee) still works with a lot of world-class athletes, so I’m really like a mentor to a lot of the athletes, like Allyson Felix and Ginny Powell, Dawn Harper –- some of the athletes that he’s still coaching. From my standpoint, I talk with them more on the mental side of it. Because, physically, I think that we’re all gifted. But, to me, to be able to stand on top of the podium, you’ve got to have that mental toughness and a mental work ethic to understand that nothing is going to come easy. … Conversing with them and try to figure out what is it that gets you off your game, why your mind wanders. And when you are picked to win a gold medal or picked to be on top, how do you handle that? How do you deal with it without putting all that pressure on you, but still be able to go do something that you’ve trained all your career for? But you train, one, because you love doing it. Two, show the world that you love it. Along the way, you’re going to have some ups and downs, but it’s how you deal with the ups and downs.
Q: Are all the athletes you work with under Bobby?
A: Yes, all Bobby’s athletes. And then some of the other athletes that might call. Like some of the heptathletes want to get my advice. … It’s been enjoyable for me.
Q: You had that trait even as a competitor.
A: I was always one that wanted to give advice. Because I believe that when you’re at that level and you come to a national championship, you might see a young athlete that might be struggling. So I would give them advice. I’d try to help them out. It had nothing to do with how well I was going to perform or anything like that, because either I’m ready to go at the point or I’m not. My little advice that I might give you, it shouldn’t change what I’ve still got to do because, when it’s all said and done, we all have to get our there and execute.
Q: That camaraderie seems more common in the multis, distances and some of the field events.
A: To me, that was the great thing about the multi-events. Because we might be out there 12 hours with each other. Or longer. Who has time to bottle up so much anxiety? You’ve got to lean on one another. That was one of the great things that I would notice when I would … do the open hurdles or sprints, where they have so much attitude. You know what, to me when it’s all said and done, if we can’t be friends after this because of a tenth of a second or half of an inch, then we’ve got a problem here. Because there’s more to life. But that’s unfortunate. Because I do believe in rivalries. I believe in that. But I also believe in a rivalry that is a friendship. Just because we’re going up against each other, that don’t mean I don’t like you. It’s just on that day, I want to beat you. But after the race we should be able to shake hands, embrace and still go on.
Q: Your friendship with Sharrieffa goes back to the 1984 Olympics?
A: That’s the one great thing about me. I made friends with people in all the events. And Sharrieffa and I, we just always stayed close from my collegiate days and just had a true admiration of one another. I came to -– I think it was Lexington or it might have been Louisville –- I was speaking and Sharrieffa came out (five or six years ago), and we just talked about trying to do something then. Then we didn’t really put anything together, and then we would see each other at different events. Then, we were just talking on the phone and Sharrieffa’s like, ‘well what do you think about us just doing a camp in the area?’ Because she’s seeing it, working with young people, and I’m seeing it. And I told her ‘why not?’ We have this knowledge. Let’s, instead of someone else trying to bring us in and controlling it, ‘no, let’s do it ourself.’ That’s how we came up with the idea. She wanted to start at home first so I said ‘OK.’ Plus, the work I was doing in East St. Louis, at one point Sharrieffa would have her dance kids. They came up and performed for us. So it was just really a way to really work in an area that we both have a passion for and hopes of tying to show our knowledge, and trying to reach young people. We call it ‘Speed and agility, track and field.’ But it’s going to encompass so much more, to be able to reach kids at a very young age in hopes of them picking up great habits that they will continue for the rest of their lives.
Q: Will Bobby be coming with you?
A: No, Uh-uh.
Q: Is he in Europe now?
A: Bobby also helps volunteer for UCLA. I think that’s their (NCAA) regional. That was the toughest part when we were trying to (find a time to) do this, so it could fit in to the school year, off time, when they can do something, along with us having collegiate nationals, along with senior nationals, so when was the best time? And this was the time we came up with.
Q: How often do you actually get to be with Bobby?
A: For me, it’s actually too much sometimes (she laughs). Hey, whenever he gets a breather, that’s good. Because they were just in Doha (Qatar) last week, and now they’re in London. Bobby’s trying to get back because, with that volcano, they have cancelled a lot of the flights. Hopefully he’ll be back in L.A. tomorrow and then he might have to fly out to Korea. But that’s the difference with the world-class athletes.
Q: So you see him often enough?
A: Oh, yes. Enough to the point where I know that I get on his nerves (laugh). One great thing about not competing now is I can say what I want to say when I want to say it. (laugh) It’s great and I really enjoy the ability to –- when he reaches out to me and tells me ‘I need you to talk with this person’ or ‘could you give this person …’, because Bobby knows that I like that. And it might not be just with his athletes. It’s other athletes, too, especially if I see young talent and they’re just struggling. A word of encouragement. Because I think that’s so important, and you don’t get that a lot without people thinking you want something. To me, ‘Hey, I just want to see you do well.’
Q: You had those feelings even when you were competing?
A: I’ve always tried to be who I am. Some people might not have understood it. … When I’m in competition, I’m really focused on what I have to do, because I really believe in performing well. I want to perform well. I want to make my coaches proud of me, from the standpoint of all the work they’ve put into me. Now, the payback for any coach is to see their athlete be able to execute what you’ve been preparing to do. I talked to a young lady the other day out of St. Louis and she was like ‘oh, it didn’t go according to how…’ and I told her, ‘you know what? Just continue to stick with it. If you put in the work, eventually it will pay off. But don’t get sidetracked.’ She was like, ‘well, we didn’t make it here.’ I said, ‘you know what, was this meet to qualify you to go to State?’ She said, ‘no, we’ve got one more.’ I said, ‘Then put this behind you, learn from the experience and get your teammates, and you guys have got another shot at it. Then I had some girls from … Facebook. One of the girls had contacted me, and they had brought in a world-class coach. They were running like 12.4, and they brought in a world-class coach and were running like 12.8. So I had to remind them: you have to be patient. And you also have to look at the weather, it has has not been great to be doing sprinting. I said, ‘if you haven’t put in the work, those times (won’t be low). Don’t give up on your coach yet.’ Because they’re ready to throw their coach under the bus. I told them, it depends on the work load. If the coach has been having you do a lot of conditioning work, you haven’t even gotten into your speed work yet, give it time. … It’s unfortunate. They have coaches and they’re second-guessing them. And I can see why a lot of our kids are confused sometimes. Instead of going, ‘hey, you know what? You haven’t done what you’re supposed to do. Give it time. It’ll work out.’
Q: When you step up in quality, you’re often stepping up in what is asked of you in workouts, and that can be an adjustment …
A: Exactly. Because ‘we want it now!’ I’ll never forget, when I first got started, I was doing the heptathlon and my numbers –- I made the World (Championships) team. And Bobby told me at that time, ‘you know what? You’re a world record-holder. I’m like, ‘yeah, right -– look at my numbers.’ He goes, ‘no. The world’s just got to wait to see. You have all the ability but you’ve got to be willing to work hard. And he broke down the heptathlon to me. He showed me on paper, like in the hurdles, I remember going up against Jane Frederick and he was like ‘Jane Frederick is running 13.20 in the hurdles and you’re running 14.8.’ I’m (saying) ‘Yea-ah?’ ‘And then in the high jump you’re jumping six feet to clear 5-8 because of poor technique. Shot put was ‘you’re not going to get a lot of points.’ And he said ‘This is why I believe you can be a world record-holder.’ And I said, ‘why?’ He said ‘you run 23.7 in the 200. She’s running 25 seconds. That doesn’t make sense to me. If I put barriers in front of you, she can outrun you. But if the barrier’s not there, you would leave her. That’s technique.’ So I’m like, ‘ohh!’ Then I started understanding why technique was so important. It wasn’t about how fast I was going to run, it was about mastering the technique. Because once you get into a race, your competitive spirit’s going to get in there. But you’ve got to have the right technique. If you don’t have the right technique, it doesn’t matter how much your competitive spirit gets in there. I was still jumping the hurdles and she was running them (laugh). That’s the thing about what we’re trying to do when we have the camp is to teach the kids the basic fundamentals because that technique is so important. When I hear kids say today, ‘well, I ran fast running like this,’ I say ‘I don’t care how fast you ran running like that. When you run up against somebody with equal talent and they’ve got better technique, they’re going to beat you.’
Q: Can you quantify how much you can teach these kids in three days?
A: I think outside of Sharrieffa and I being able to touch them with a message, but just leaving them with some of the basics and hopes of not just making this a three-day camp this time, but being able to do it year in and year out. In hopes of them, their coaches, being able to take something away that might help them. It might just be one thing, just teaching basics –- how to jump right, how you land in the pit. Because I see kids nowadays -– and this is even on the world-class level –- they’ve got some sloppy landings. And they don’t realize how that takes away. So just the basic standing long jump, teaching that, and landing into the pit. Or just the basic running technique. You’re not going to get fast overnight, but the combination of speed-endurance work, stretch work, when you do stretch work versus when not to do stretch work, when you’re doing speed work. Because it’s one thing to be quick, but it’s another thing to be fast. There are some people that are quick, but they’re not fast. So in being able to teach that, but teaching you how to run with the accuracy of maximizing what it is that you’re trying to do. In hurdles, it’s just learning the basics, trying to get young people to get down to the three strides. ‘What can we do?’ We might drill, we might show you but then, throughout the remaining of the summer, with their coaches, maybe you’re going to set the hurdles. You might bring the hurdles in so they can learn how it feels to do three strides. Then, eventually start taking those hurdles back and back and back to the right mark. You want to have their confidence and let them know, ‘oh, I can do this.’ Because you see in middle school and even sometimes in high school, when you’re doing the 80-meter hurdles or the 100-meter hurdles, depending on what state you’re in, you shouldn’t be taking no four or five steps. But some of the kids do. So you have the baby hurdles. What we’ll be able to do is to allow them to be able to take away some of the techniques that we’ll be able to teach them and they can incorporate that into their training. So if it’s the coaches, the parents and making sure there’s a balance there. Because sometimes they don’t want to let their kids go. It’s like, ‘OK. (We’re) not trying to take anything away from any coach. What we’re trying to do is to supplement something that they’re already doing.’
Q: What about the boys who might shy from being instructed by a woman?
A: To me, there’s no difference. When I see them, I see athletes. Even though it’s boys, girls, I just see athletes. Last year, we had a young guy that was from East St. Louis and he didn’t want to go to the Junior Olympics, so the coaches called me to talk to him. I was telling him, because this little boy is gifted, and from me talking to him, he told them that he wanted to go. I’m just talking to him and telling him about ‘this is where it starts, it starts at the Junior Olympic level, and your coaches see something in you that you don’t know that you have.’ With Sharrieffa and I working with the boys, it’s no different. Because when you’re young and you’re trying to learn technique –- the running techniques, they’re not that different, even with the hurdles. It’s just that all of a sudden as you get older and you get up to the 42-inch, there’s a difference in the arm pitch or how might pitch into the hurdles, but I’ve been around bit. That’s one great thing about working with Bobby and working with … (former world-champion hurdler) Greg Foster. It’s not that big of a difference. … It’s the same way when people question a man coaching girls. You know what? They’re coaching us. To me, the training technique, it doesn’t change. I’ve heard from going to some after-school programs that some kids can’t take someone raising their voice at them. OK. So then you find another way to get it across to them. And it’s not so much raising your voice, it’s how that kid interprets what you’re saying. Because you might have a coach and, to a kid, they might think they’re raising their voice. But what they’re missing is that the passion that that coach has to say ‘I know you can do this.’ I’m trying to pull it out of them. And when it comes to Sharrieffa and myself it’s just like ‘hey, when we train the 400 hurdles, we train with both boys and the girls. When they run the 330 lows, they run the 330 lows the same way, the girls and the guys. The times might be a little bit different, but the distances are the same. Now it all depends on who’s going to try to hop them versus who’s going to run them like a sprint. When to attack, when not to attack. What’s going to be the stride length? And, guys, you go from a 13-stride-length pattern to a 15-stride-length pattern and then, as you’re coming home, it might change. That’s in the 330(-yard)s or 300(-meter)s. Then all of a sudden when it becomes 400 hurdles, it’s going to be the same stride pattern. Because the … strength of the athlete is going to be different.
Q: Speaking of technique, I once heard Bobby explaining the idea of getting up and over the hurdles -– back onto the track — as quickly as possible, because every split second in the air is a split second in which you’re losing speed. He said he had a drill where he says, ‘Jackie, I’m going to set this dime on the hurdle. I want you to knock it off, but don’t touch the hurdle.’
A: Exactly. And that’s why we use the hurdle pads. Because you’re trying to run through that hurdle. And then that trail leg is going to back to the middle and down, and you’re trying to run away from that hurdle. In my case, being 5-10 and having a two-meter stride length, I’m trying to really cut that down to 1.96 to 1.98. So I was always at a disadvantage when I would run agains a Gail Devers because it’s going to work fine for Gail, but then I have to figure out a way to not break my stride pattern so I can still keep the velocity up. That’s why, in the men’s hurdles, the distance would have been ideal for me, because it would have allowed me to open up. People think because you’re tall, the hurdles are going to be easy. It’s difficult for a taller person. A shorter person is going to have a better cadence.
Q: The same problem was true for Greg Foster.
A: Exactly. … The taller you are, the harder you’ve got to work. You can’t lose a lot of time or space in the air. It’s the same way even in sprinting. The person that’s spending a lot of time in the air versus the person that’s making ground contact, they’re moving. So while you’re floating –- just like Allyson (Felix). Allyson runs like a gazelle, smooth. But when she runs the 100, she wants to float. You can’t float. Because they’re going to be turning over and they’re going to leave you. Now, when she runs the 200, she has the ability to make that up because those sprinters that are faster, they are going to start to decelerate while she’s getting stronger. But in the 100 there’s not enough real estate for her to float. … In the 400, she can run that good. You can float a little bit. But (the 100), no.
Q: With all your world records, World Championships and Olympic medals, do you recall a favorite moment and, also, a favorite lesson learned?
A: I think all the moments have been great because I have experienced both on the high note -– an Olympic champion — and then also struggling with injuries. I think ’96, for me, was very, very telling as far as my career was concerned because I’m always stressing to young people ‘never give up.’ And even though I had a world record, I had gold medals and I could have walked away from Atlanta, I stayed with it. Because regardless of what other people might have thought or ‘why is she doing it?’ I believed I could still win. And I think having that attitude really afforded me that Olympic bronze medal, and that medal meant a lot to me because I didn’t give up. Winning gold medals, yes, that’s the ultimate. But today, to make one Olympic team, two, three and four, and still try to compete at the highest level really, to me, says a lot about your commitment and your desire to want to be out there. That you’re willing. I always told Bobby that ‘I will always be a student, and I don’t care how much people praise me.’ For me, it’s really about being a student of the game and respecting my coach as my coach. Even though he’s my husband, I have to look at him as the coach. Because the coach and the athlete must always be on the same page. Regardless of what people say, you’ve got to be on the same page because that’s the person that’s with you day in and day out, through the ups and downs, knows what your weaknesses are, knows where you’re strong, they’re with you when you’re breaking down. What I’ve learned from athletics, in a nutshell, is the ability to deal with challenges both on and off the field. And always keeping things in perspective. It’s not getting so caught up in what your news clippings say about you, but know who you really are.