Joyner-Kersee Overcomes Jitters : She Has This Hang-Up About Sprinting but Still Wins 60

Times Staff Writer

Put her on a long jump runway, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee is in her element. Put her in the starting blocks with nothing but 60 yards of plywood between her and the finish line, and the world’s greatest female athlete suddenly feels rather clumsy.

“I got in there with all those tiny sprinters and I was this big thing,” Joyner-Kersee said. “I felt like a big old Clydesdale. I get self-conscious.”

Friday night in the Sunkist Invitational at the Sports Arena, Joyner-Kersee got that horsey feeling in her indoor debut as a sprinter. As usual, she fretted that she would not perform perfectly. As usual, she was masterful. Joyner-Kersee won the 60-yard dash in 6.68 seconds, beating a good field that was minus Evelyn Ashford, the world co-record-holder in the event.

For a person who had to be coaxed into running the event, a heptathlete who towers over smaller sprinters, Joyner-Kersee appeared comfortable as a sprinter. It’s a state of mind, she says, a state she’s yet to visit.


“What I am trying to do is to learn how to sprint and relax,” she said. “It’s because I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s all mental. I watch Carl Lewis and Florence (Griffith Joyner) on videotape, and they can accelerate and relax. Me, I accelerate and do this,” Joyner-Kersee said, pumping her arms like a locomotive.

She has an odd reluctance to hunker down among the sprinters--odd for a woman who is talented in seven events. She’s the world record-holder in the heptathlon and was the gold medalist in that event and in the long jump at the Seoul Olympics. The hallmark of a successful multi-event athlete is to have the mind-set of many athletes--to think like a javelin thrower while in that event, to think like a high jumper in that event, etc.

“You have to see yourself in those events, you have to imagine it,” she said.

Somehow, Joyner-Kersee just can’t picture herself as a sprinter.

“I just feel so big,” she said. Joyner-Kersee, who doesn’t appear to have an ounce of pinchable fat on her, is 5 feet 10 inches and 155 pounds. “You know, all heptathletes are 5-10 or over. But on TV, I guess we look smaller. People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you are much bigger than I thought.’ These sprinters are about 5-2 or something.”

Her sensitivity and reluctance to sprint were so great that even during warm-ups she sought a way out. As she settled in the blocks and placed her hands shoulder-width apart, she noticed that her hands came down outside the 36-inch-wide lane.

“I ran to Bobby (husband and coach Bobby Kersee) and told him, ‘Hey, I can’t keep my hands in my lane,’ ” she said. “Bobby said, ‘Shut up, Jackie.’ ”

Most track fans were eager to watch the race, as it would have matched Joyner-Kersee with Ashford. Ashford, however was not at the starting line and waved weakly from the stands as she was introduced.

Ashford said she attended an inaugural gala Thursday night in Washington and had become ill.

As it was, Joyner-Kersee defeated respectable sprinters. Gail Devers-Roberts was second in 6.76, and Juliet Cuthbert was third in 6.81.

One aspect of Joyner-Kersee’s regimen does not lend itself to sprinting. She and her husband/coach are among the more analytical individuals around. They watch enormous amounts of videotape and dissect every nuance of technique. However, sprinting is an event that calls for reaction, not reflection.

“While I’m there analyzing,” she said, “Everybody else is already out of the blocks.”

Bobby Kersee had to use some subterfuge to rope Jackie into entering the event. She was not originally entered and, in fact, only notified meet promoter Al Franken on Thursday that she would compete.

“Bobby was working me on block starts, for the hurdles,” she said. “Then he said, ‘Jackie, this would be a good week to run a 60 indoors.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Will you do me a favor, Jackie? Will you just try to listen to me, just once? Will you do this one thing for me?’ ”

Put in that position, she had a difficult time saying no. After the race, she admitted it wasn’t all that bad. She even went so far as to say that the only way she would get better was to run more often. As painful to her self-image as that would be.

“I really think this is going to help me in the long jump and the hurdles, that’s what we are trying for,” she said.

If that happens, maybe Joyner-Kersee will understand that bigger may be better.