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Jackie Joyner-Kersee receives Ford Award

The former UCLA star and Olympic champion reflects on a long run of success

Jackie Joyner-Kersee is one of the most decorated female athletes in history. NCAA Photos

Jackie Joyner was a promising young basketball player and track and field star when she chose a college that was 2,000 miles from home — and a world away.

“I was homesick. I was afraid. I would talk to my mother every night my freshman year,” she said Friday as she reflected on her college years.

Yet leaving East St. Louis, Illinois, was only the beginning of the changes she would endure. Her mother died before the end of her freshman year. And the UCLA college athlete soon discovered another piece of her old life was missing: the community center in her hometown, where she had been exposed to sports and learned to use the library.

“I thought, ‘I’m losing my mind, and I want to go somewhere where I can find love and people who are going to embrace you,’” she said Friday, reflecting on her college days while accepting an award from the NCAA. “I went to the community center, but little did I know that it had closed. I thought, ‘Where did all the people go?’”

On Friday, Joyner-Kersee received the NCAA President’s Gerald R. Ford Award, which honors an individual who has provided significant leadership as an advocate for college sports. Joyner-Kersee received the award at a luncheon at the 2019 NCAA Convention in Orlando, Florida. After NCAA President Mark Emmert presented her with the award, the two sat on stage before an audience of college and university presidents, athletics directors, student-athletes and other convention attendees and discussed her life and career in sports.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee would go on to be one of the most decorated female athletes in history. After competing in four Olympics, the current world record holder in the women’s heptathlon came home to East St. Louis and opened the community center she had long dreamed of bringing back to her hometown.

“We’re trying to make a difference in the young people who walk the same streets and the same pavement that we did,” she said. “For me, I came through a community center in East St. Louis, and … I didn’t know at the time of the impact it was having, but I knew I was learning from people.”

After her mother died and the social structure of her life back home crumbled, Joyner-Kersee said, she never considered not following through at UCLA. “Not going back wasn’t an option,” she said. “I had to see it through, whatever the challenges were.”

At UCLA, Joyner-Kersee competed in women’s basketball and track and field. In track, she set two collegiate records, won two NCAA national championships in the heptathlon and earned multiple All-America honors. In 1985, she was awarded the Broderick Cup, presented to the country’s most outstanding female collegiate athlete. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1986.

She went on to win one gold medal and two bronze medals in the long jump, and two gold medals and one silver medal in the heptathlon. She also won 13 indoor and outdoor national titles in long jump, eight national titles in the heptathlon, one in the 100-meter hurdles and one in the 60 hurdles. Joyner-Kersee still holds the current U.S. records in the outdoor long jump and indoor 50 hurdles and 55 hurdles.

“No matter where I am, I’m always thinking of, ‘What are the students doing at UCLA?’” Joyner-Kersee told Emmert. “I will always be grateful for the opportunity to attend the university but also to represent the university to the best of my ability. It will always be a home for me.”