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Jim Murray

His Fair Lady Works to Be Finest Athlete of Them All

February 18, 1988|Jim Murray

Lots of guys fall in love with women because they like their form--but in the shotput?

Lots of guys first notice women because of their grace and rhythm--but on the dance floor, not the javelin run.

The love story of Bob Kersee and Jackie Joyner-Kersee would be perfectly comprehensible to George Bernard Shaw. There's a great part in it for Rex Harrison. Jackie Joyner-Kersee could play herself.

It's the "Pygmalion" legend played out in track and field. My Fair Lady Goes to the Olympics, if you will. It's a pity Lerner and Loewe aren't around to set it to music.

You will remember in the Bernard Shaw version, Professor Higgins takes this flower girl out of the stalls and Cockney accent and makes this great lady out of her, mainly with cantankerous voice lessons and the several ways to pronounce the rain in Spain.

Well, Professor Kersee, otherwise known as Coach Kersee, didn't have to teach Jackie Joyner how to speak. As a matter of fact, he didn't have to teach her how to run and jump, either. But, like Professor 'Iggins, he had to polish the edges just a little.

Like the original "My Fair Lady," this one didn't start out as a romance. It started out with the coach yelling at the pupil.

Kersee was the tough, tyrannical assistant women's coach at UCLA at the time, and Jackie Joyner was a young lady who was going about it all wrong.

In the original Greek legend, Pygmalion creates his statue and then brings life to it. Bob Kersee was not quite Pygmalion.

Jackie Joyner was already a first-class athlete but didn't know what use to make of her talents. She didn't know whether to be a basketball player or a track star. Professor Kersee had no such ambivalence in the matter.

"I told everybody who would listen she would be the world record-holder in the heptathlon if she wanted to be. I told the sportswriters, I told the athletic department, I told her," Kersee recalls.

"That was in 1982. I told her she could be the first athlete to break 7,000 points in the heptathlon."

So, Jackie Joyner fell in the Julie Andrews/Audrey Hepburn role, turned herself over to her taskmaster.

But instead of rehearsing phonetics and which fork to use, this fair lady practiced how many steps to take in the long jump, how to hold her extensions in the hurdles and when to let go of the javelin and shot.

No one knew it was a love story. It was just an artist and clay relationship at first. Kersee thought he was molding a gold medal winner.

A heptathlon is the distaff version of the decathlon, which is to say it's the ultimate test of strength, speed and endurance, a seven-event hall of horrors only the fittest survive.

As with the decathlon, it is not uncommon for a competitor to be a world record or near-record performer in one or more events and better than average in the rest.

Jackie's specialty was the long jump, an event in which she has held the women's world record, and the hurdles, in which she can hold her own with the world's best.

She was expected to parlay those talents into a gold at the '84 Olympics but, unaccountably, she tripped over her best event, misplayed her hole card, when she fouled on her first two long jumps at the Games finals.

That meant she had to take off on her last jump well before her start mark or she would end up with no points at all. She ended up with a jump two feet below her best and about 150 points less than she had expected to score.

The 147 points below her rival and eventual winner, Glynis Nunn, proved catastrophic since she lost her gold medal to Nunn by only five points.

No one is quite sure when Bob Kersee looked and saw the woman, not the statue. Or when Jackie looked and saw the man, not the coach.

Kersee the coach got tougher as Kersee the man got softer.

He brought a stopwatch, not a corsage to their dates, which were not to a concert but to the high jump pit.

They had been too immersed in the athlete-coach relationship to see themselves in any other light.

They thought their mutual dependence was athletic, not romantic.

Until, suddenly, Kersee recalls, he put down the stopwatch. The statue had come to life. "We realized our lives were going in the same direction," he recalls. "We were compatible, we liked the same things." In the movies, they call it Love.

Since neither had ever been married or even engaged, they didn't recognize the symptoms.

They got them to the church on time. Jackie Joyner became Jackie Joyner-Kersee in January of 1986. She has since become the world's greatest female athlete--or one of them, at any rate--and America's best since Babe Didrikson.

She will be one of our major hopes for the gold at Seoul in '88, maybe for two of them. And Jackie Joyner-Kersee will be one of the star performers at Friday night's Times/GTE indoor track meet at the Forum, where she will not only try to regain the indoor world record in the long jump but continue on her pace to regain the gold medal she dropped at Los Angeles.

Husband-wife teams are as American as maple syrup whether it's the theater, politics, the board room or the race track, and the Kersees are the latest in a long line and they have a mission.

The gold medal lost in 1984 was a joint effort, this Pygmalion admits. "It was my fault as much as hers. We were both inexperienced in Olympics. It was my first, and it was Jackie's first. We both made mistakes, we both had mental lapses. We both focused on negatives."

It's what marriage is all about--share the glory, share the blame. Promises Coach Kersee: "It will be different in Seoul." Now, wouldn't that be loverly?

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