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OLYMPICS '88: A PREVIEW : THE FIRST FAMILY : Joyner and Kersee Got a Jump in Their Personal Relationship

September 14, 1988|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

The relationship between Jackie Joyner and Bob Kersee began seven years ago in a Tacoma, Wash. hotel. Don't get the wrong idea. It was in the hallway outside their rooms, where Joyner, a UCLA freshman, long jumped and Kersee, an assistant track and field coach at the university, corrected her technique. Who needs pay-per-view movies and 24-hour room service when you can have fun like that?

Joyner and Kersee were well aware of each other before then, but only from a distance. As the coach for sprinters and hurdlers, he would look across the track at this marvelous athlete and tell himself that she should be performing much better. She was a heptathlete who told herself that she should be coached by Kersee.

At least, that's her story. Kersee said that Joyner was intimidated by him because she could hear him yelling at his sprinters and hurdlers. Joyner said that, on the contrary, she wished she had a coach who cared enough to yell at her.

Joyner had been one of the nation's best high school athletes in East St. Louis, Ill., a standout in track and field, basketball and volleyball. But because she went to UCLA on a basketball scholarship, she felt that the track and field coaches ignored her.

She could hardly think otherwise at the end of her freshman year, when she qualified for the national championships in the heptathlon and no coach was assigned to accompany her to Tacoma. When Kersee discovered that, he was at first incredulous. Then angry. He said that he would go even if he had to pay out of his own pocket. UCLA paid.

After the first day of the two-day, seven-event competition, even though she was far behind the leaders, Kersee told her: "Girl, you have a lot of talent. You're going to be one of the best heptathletes."

"Me?" she said.

That night, in preparation for the next morning's first event, the long jump, Kersee bought some masking tape and turned the hotel hallway into a runway so that Joyner could practice her approach.

"The next day, I jumped 21 feet," she said. "All year, I had been jumping 19. Just to jump 21 again, like I did in high school, I said, 'I know I can still do it.' "

She recalled that story this summer during one of those glorious, sun-bathed days at UCLA's Drake Stadium, where she and other members of Kersee's World Class Athletic Club, such as Valerie Brisco, Gail Devers-Roberts and Pam Marshall, train.

In interviews, separate and together, she and Kersee talked at length about the blossoming of their relationship, where it stands now in regard to their ambitious athletic goals and where they believe it will lead after the Summer Olympics in Seoul.

They spoke while sitting behind Kersee's Drake Stadium desk, which actually is two hurdles placed next to each other with a piece of plywood between them. On top was his ever-present cordless telephone.

She is one of the warmest, most even-tempered persons in athletics. The next bad word that anyone who knows her, including her competitors, says about her will be the first. Kersee is more intense and less outgoing but candid and sincere. His athletes sometimes would like to bury their spikes in his back, but most of them remain fiercely loyal to him.

That includes Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who is married to him. The Kersee-Joyner relationship remained strictly coach-athlete for four years until they began dating in 1985, leading to their marriage in January, 1986. She is 26, and he is 34.

She retained her maiden name initially because Kersee told her that she couldn't use his until she set a world record. That didn't take long. In July, 1986, she became the first woman to break 7,000 points in the heptathlon, scoring 7,148 points at the Goodwill Games in Moscow.

The only U.S. woman to hold a world record in a multi-event competition since Babe Didrikson, Joyner-Kersee, like Didrikson, has become recognized throughout the world as the best woman athlete of her time.

While no other woman has scored more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon, Joyner-Kersee has done it four times, most recently at the U.S. Olympic trials in July, when she reached 7,215 to break the world record for the third time in three years.

Until earlier this summer, she also was a co-holder of the world record in the long jump (24-5 1/2), and she remains a co-holder of the U.S. record in the 100-meter hurdles (12.61).

Could she have done it without Kersee?

"I think if the right coach had coached Jackie, yes," he said. "I don't think I'm the reason Jackie is the world record-holder. Jackie's the reason. I think my love for track and field and her love for track and field jelled so that she became successful.

"But she's much more of a fanatic about athletics than I am. I think that's saying something because, before I met Jackie, I didn't think anyone could have more of a one-track mind than Bob Kersee."

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