Friday, July 24, 2015

Jackie Joyner Kersee: Know the Why

With her 21st Grand Slam victory at Wimbledon, and one win away from capturing her first Grand Slam, many people consider Serena Williams to be the best female athlete in the world today. I do not disagree.

Is she the greatest female athlete of all time? That is to be determined. As much as I would love to see Serena play post in basketball—nah, she'd want to run the show as the point guard—her one and only sport has been tennis. And more power to her. She had dominated in game that doesn't offer many role models that look like her—and I mean that far beyond her race (which is significant). 

But the greatest female athlete of the 20th century excelled at basketball, the 100 m hurdles, High jump, Shot put, 200 m, Long jump, Javelin throw and 800 m. Jackie Joyner Kersee was voted No. 23 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished panel. Sports Illustrated for Women magazine voted her the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century, just ahead of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Babe excelled at golf, basketball and track and field. 
Williams has four Olympic gold medals of her own. I would love to see her compete in the hepathalon. Heck, I would love to play a round of golf with her. She may emerge as the greatest female athlete of the 21st Century, but time will tell. In the meantime, this is all I can offer: I know why Jackie Joyner Kersee is a six-time Olympic Gold medalist.

At a fundraiser I attended for "Third Box" in June, she challenged the audience to know the why behind an institution, an organization, a cause, a belief and a way of being. 

She said, "Knowing the why is more important than knowing how. Those that know the why beat those that know how."

I guess she knows a little bit about beating others, too.

How did she compete? How did she play basketball? How does she give back to her community? Those are easy questions to answer. But to Joyner-Kersee, the why is what's important. 

Why did she compete? Why did she play basketball? Why does she give back to her community center. I know why.

J-K grew up in East St. Louis. Much like the words of Nathaniel in John's Gospel, most people would ask "What good can come from East St. Louis." Fortunately, we have a wonderful answer in Jackie.

Thanks to a community center, she had a chance to participate in athletics. But sports wasn't the only resource this center provided. She met a librarian who helped her check out books. That library was also connected to a center for seniors. She volunteered at  the senior center and found that their presence was a gift. Why? because she didn't have grandparents. The elders she met and got to know passed on wisdom about the why of life. "In short," she said, "I was always surrounded by support."

Ultimately this support led her to UCLA where she earned a scholarship for women's basketball.

Jackie shared that her mother and father were married as teens. They lost their first child, who Mary, her mother, delivered at just 14 years of age. She had Jackie when she was 16. There was a lot of love in their home, but a lot of strife, disappointment, and struggle that underscored daily living.

She said "the struggle is NOT the problem, not having a third box is the problem. My mom did not have a third box. I hope you will support this organization because they know the why of it all."

And in her final remarks, she said "Always remember where you came from. Thank you. Good night."

To me, Joyner-Kersee wanted the audience to know and remember literally and metaphorically where we come from—it can't help but include the why. The elders of East St. Louis, the librarian, those who organized sports at her community center, her parents all reveal why Jackie Joyner-Kersee became a different kind of statistic out of East St. Louis.

You can't read about Serena Williams without some reference and of where she came from. The role of her father and her mother, her sister Venus are inextricably linked with the why. Will she surpass Steffi Graf who holds 22 Grand Slam titles or Margaret Smith Court with 24 to become women's tennis greatest? Will she earn another 2 Gold Medals in Rio in 2016 to tie Jackie Joyner-Kersee? 

If she does, I would love to be a fly on the wall for a conversation between those two women and more thoughts on the why. 
Other Articles on Serena: Game, Set, Match: Serena, 32 Years in the Making

Photo Credits
JJK Long Jump
Serena: TBD

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