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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

Kersee said that he believes his wife, if she were to quit the heptathlon and concentrate on an individual discipline, could qualify for the Olympic team in any of six track and field events. As it is, she will be compete in Seoul in the heptathlon and long jump, both of which she won at track and field's World Championships last summer in Rome.

Successful as she has become, Joyner-Kersee's career has not eclipsed her husband's as head coach of the UCLA women's team and the World Class Athletic Club. Kersee was the most talked about and talked to coach by the media at the trials in Indianapolis as seven of his athletes earned places on the Olympic team.

Within days after the trials, the most celebrated athlete in Indianapolis, sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, who, through her marriage to 1984 Olympic triple jump champion Al Joyner became Jackie's sister-in-law, announced that she no longer would be coached by Kersee.

Among the reasons listed by Griffith Joyner was that Kersee had too many athletes to give her the individual attention that she felt she needed. Implied was that he spent too much time on the track with his wife, a complaint that he said he has heard at one time or another from most of his athletes.

Because he said that he also has heard from his wife that he spends too much time on the track with his other athletes, he tends not to take that particular criticism too seriously.

"They all say that I'm not paying enough attention to them," he said. "The only difference in Jackie and the others is that I don't drive home or go to bed with the others.

"I try to show as much attention to everyone as possible, but I'm sure I've made mistakes. What I've had to fight in myself is showing Jackie less attention. If Jackie deserves half an hour of my work, she gets half an hour. In the past, maybe I cut it down to 20 minutes so that nobody would say, 'Oh yeah, Coach is married to her so he's going to work with her longer.' But that was as wrong to Jackie as it would have been to anyone else."

He has been Joyner-Kersee's only track and field coach since her sophomore year in 1982, when Kersee, still an assistant coach, asked the UCLA women's athletic director, Dr. Judy Holland, if he could add Jackie to his group of athletes. Holland conferred with Jackie, learned that she also thought it would be a good idea and approved the request.

Over the next few years, the coach and the athlete became close friends, although their backgrounds were vastly different.

Born in Panama to a Panamanian mother and a U.S. Navy father, Kersee moved often until his family eventually settled into a comfortable middle-class life in San Pedro.

His idol was Vince Lombardi.

"I wanted to be the first black head coach in the NFL," he said. "That was my dream when I was young.

"Later on, I started watching the Olympic Games, and I always enjoyed track and field. So I told myself that maybe I could be the Olympic coach some day. Then, I finally cut that down and started coaching Olympians."

Joyner-Kersee was reared in an East St. Louis ghetto. Her parents were married when her father was 16 and her mother 14. He became a railroad switch operator and she a nurse's assistant, but they were unable to provide many material comforts for their four children. Their house has been described as little more than wallpaper and sticks.

Mary Joyner was the most influential person in her young daughter's life, a strong-willed, stout of faith woman who forced her children, especially the three girls, to walk a straight line. When she died at age 38 after being suddenly stricken with meningitis in 1981, Jackie, far away from home at UCLA, was devastated.

But she later discovered that Kersee had also lost his mother at 18, and that beneath the pugnacious exterior of her coach was a soulmate.

"Bobby and I used to do a lot of things together," she said. "I never thought a relationship would develop out of it. In 1982, he took some of his athletes to China, and this Chinese lady was liking him. I told her, 'He's married to me, so you leave him alone.' Bobby wanted to beat me up because he liked the lady. But I wasn't thinking about liking him. We were just friends.

"Then, in early '84, before the Olympics, he asked me to go to the beach with him. I could tell that something was on his mind, but he wouldn't say what it was.

"He said, 'You predict a score (for the heptathlon champion) at the NCAA championships, and I'll predict a score.' We played that game for a little while. I said, 'We came all the way out there to talk about some scores? We could have talked about heptathlon scores on the phone.'

"Nothing came of it at that time, but I went home and looked in the mirror and said, 'I think he likes me.' "

The courtship began a year later, when Joyner-Kersee was sharing a house in Ingelwood with Brisco. Joyner-Kersee delights in telling this part of the story.

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