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Scott Ostler

Her Marriage Takes Work, and It Works!

May 12, 1987|SCOTT OSTLER

Here's an athlete's nightmare:

Tough day at the practice field. Your coach ran your tail off, berated and harassed you as coaches love to do, yapped at your heels like a junkyard poodle. Still fuming, you drive home. Can't wait to cry on your husband's/wife's shoulder.

You stagger in. "Honey, I'm home!" Your husband/wife appears, hands on hips, glowering. It's your coach.

This is easy for me to say, because I've never been tempted to do this, but I would guess that marrying your coach is way down on the list of smart things to do, lower than trying to teach your husband/wife to drive a car.

Jackie Joyner did it anyway, married her coach.

Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee is America's greatest female athlete. She won the silver medal in the heptathlon at the L.A. Olympics, and later shattered the world record in the event. She won the 1987 Sullivan Award, which goes to our nation's outstanding amateur athlete. She'll run and jump in the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA Saturday, a significant whistle-stop on the road to Seoul.

A year ago, Jackie married her UCLA track coach, Bob Kersee.

Jackie tried having relationships with regular people, but those relationships never worked out. The guys didn't understand why she wouldn't give up her track career for something meaningful, like washing dishes. They couldn't deal with her ambition and success.

Jackie had a lot of tough inner debates. Was she being selfish? A glory hound? Unrealistic? She decided she was not.

"My mother always told me, 'Never get involved with an individual who doesn't want you to do anything for yourself,' " Joyner says.

Jackie grew up in the ghetto of East St. Louis, Ill., and somehow developed Olympic ambitions. This was not a neighborhood conducive to greatness, but, Jackie says: "For some reason, I always believed I was going to go on. I decided I wanted to go to the Olympics. I wanted to be on TV."

So she passed on marriage until she met Kersee. In some ways, theirs is the perfect relationship. He drives her to success, appreciates her ambition and athletic greatness, and shares her triumphs. He wins when she wins.

However, there are flaws in the relationship.

"The majority of the time it's a lot of fun, being married to your coach, but at times it's a problem," Jackie says. "He says I don't listen, that I'm hard-headed."

Can you believe it? Someone saying that kind of thing about his/her spouse?

"There have been times when he's been rough," Jackie says, chuckling. "The other day, he wanted me to practice jumping off a trampoline, for the high jump. I was afraid. He said, 'Damn it, I'm the coach out here. Do it my way or leave the track.'

"I couldn't do it. He made me leave, kicked me out in front of everyone. The whole team was there, Daley Thompson was there. I was never so embarrassed in my life. I walked off real bold, trying to make like it didn't bother me, but it was burning me up. I had to go off to the side of the track and wait for him, so we could go home together."

And that was the end of it?

"Once we got home, I said, 'We're home now, Bobby, we're off the track.' He said, 'No, I'm still mad.' The next day, everything was fine."

Fortunately, Jackie has a sense of humor, a 1,000-watt personality. And I'm not trying to hustle Bob and Jackie as combatants on "The Newlywed Game," merely pointing out that this can be a tough double life. Actually, the Joyner-Kersees, or Kersee-Joyners, have a unique and smooth-functioning family set-up.

Jackie's little brother, Al, who won the 1984 Olympic gold medal in the triple jump, is a live-in border, and also trains under coach Bob. Bob leans hard on Jackie. Jackie leans hard on Al. Bob leans hard on Al.

Al? Let's hope he has a pet dog that can take a good kick.

It's all held together by love and mutual respect. Corny but true.

They have affectionate nicknames. Jackie calls Bob Bobby. Bobby calls Jackie JJ, which is an aesthetic improvement on her high school nicknames, Jughead and Headquarters--"I have a big forehead." Jackie calls Al Fri-Fri, dating back to when she couldn't pronounce Alfrederick. Al would be embarrassed if anyone knew of this nickname, so don't say anything.

Al calls Bob and Jackie Mr. and Mrs. Warden.

"My brother has no discipline," Jackie says cheerfully. "Bobby has to give him a curfew. I'm Mrs. Warden, because I tell on him. I'm the enforcer. I have to stay on him."

Imagine what Al could accomplish if he had more personal discipline. Win a platinum medal in the next Olympics, maybe.

Al will settle for a gold. So will Jackie. Coach Bob will see that it doesn't go to their heads.

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