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The Last Vaults

Jacqueline Joyner was born 36 years ago in East St. Louis, Ill. Her grandmother suggested the first name because she believed her granddaughter, like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, would become “the first lady of something.”

That would be track and field, which Jackie Joyner-Kersee dominated between 1986 and ’96, becoming recognized as the world’s greatest female athlete.

It is arguable that you could drop the word female and still be accurate. Michael Jordan fans would be correct in claiming she can’t play basketball the way he does, although she did play it well enough to earn her scholarship to UCLA, but let’s see how far he can throw the javelin.

Today, Joyner-Kersee appears as an athlete for the final time in Edwardsville, Ill., in a meet hurriedly assembled by USA Track and Field officials as a tribute to her.

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She chose to go out in the long jump because that is the discipline she first recalls practicing, running and jumping off the three-foot-high front porch of the modest house where she was raised.

Later, she realized she might be extraordinarily gifted when she began beating her older brother, Al, in races.

Al beat her to a gold medal, winning the triple jump in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. But she soon surpassed him, as well as almost everyone else in the sport, with her collection of six Olympic medals, including two golds in the heptathlon and one in the long jump; four world records in the heptathlon and one in the long jump; and 13 American records in the heptathlon, long jump and 100-meter high hurdles.

She no doubt will reflect on all of that today in Edwardsville, not far from the home where she and her husband and coach, Bob Kersee, now live in St. Louis, and the youth foundation they founded in East St. Louis.

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“It will be very emotional,” she said.

She has already bid one such farewell, competing in her final heptathlon three days ago in the Goodwill Games. Stepping onto the track Wednesday night for the last of seven events, the 800 meters, she said she almost cried.

“It dawned on me, ‘This is it, this is really it,’ ” she said.

Appropriately, she was brought back down to the Mitchel Athletic County track by the one thing that has kept her focused throughout her 17 years as a world-class athlete, the competition.

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She had a 46-point lead, but she knew it was precarious because her closest rivals, Americans Dedee Nathan and Kelly Blair-Labounty, both were faster in the 800. In order to win, Joyner-Kersee believed she would have to run faster than 2 minutes 20 seconds, which she hadn’t done in five years.

With 150 meters remaining, she was convinced she had given it all she had and that she had been too ambitious in trying to come back for a final heptathlon after not competing in one in two summers.

“If anyone can do it, Jackie can,” Kersee said before the competition.

But, at that decisive moment, she felt dizzy.

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“C’mon, dig deep,” she told herself.

Somewhere, perhaps in the crowd’s chants of “Jack-ie, Jack-ie, Jack-ie,” she found the strength. Blair-Labounty and Nathan finished ahead of her but not so far ahead that they could surpass Joyner-Kersee, whose time of 2:17.61 enabled her to finish with 6,502 points, enough by 23 to win.

It was vintage Joyner-Kersee.

If I could choose her defining moment as an athlete, it would be the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

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Having remained in the sport despite increasingly frequent battles with injuries and her chronic asthma so that she could compete in another Olympics in the United States, she finished second to Blair-Labounty in the heptathlon at the trials and had to withdraw during the competition in Atlanta.

But Joyner-Kersee returned to the track days later for the long jump competition, and although she was in sixth place before her sixth and final jump, she combined her muscle memory with one last burst of energy to win a bronze medal. Its luster was as bright as any of her golds.

Until then, I was convinced I could never be as impressed with her as I had been 10 years earlier. Competing only three weeks after she set her first heptathlon world record with 7,148 points at the initial Goodwill Games in Moscow, she overcame heat as high as 120 degrees on the track to set another world record with 7,158 points at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Houston.

Joyner-Kersee said this week that her personal highlight came during the heptathlon competition in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, where she won the gold medal that eluded her by .06 of a second four years earlier in Los Angeles and set a world record of 7,291 points that still stands.

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It also was in Seoul, she said, that she experienced the lowest moment of her career, so hurt was she when a Brazilian half-miler, Joaquim Cruz, accused Joyner-Kersee and her sister-in-law, Al’s wife Florence Griffith Joyner, of drug use.

“With the drug issue, my performance was swept under the carpet,” she said. “I hope no other person achieves a great thing and has to deal with innuendo and accusations.”

Joyner-Kersee never did again, largely because there was no evidence to support such allegations but also because of her popularity in the sport, especially with her competitors.

The friendship between Joyner-Kersee and her No. 1 long-jump rival, Germany’s Heike Drechsler, is often used as an example of the value of international sports in bringing people from different races, cultures and political systems together in harmony.

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When an East German teammate of Drechsler’s tried to distract Joyner-Kersee during her long-jump run-up in the 1987 World Championships in Rome, Drechsler angrily grabbed the woman by the nape of her neck, spun her around and advised her that such unsportsmanlike behavior was unacceptable.

In the era of egocentric athletes, Joyner-Kersee never seemed to put herself ahead of others, even if they were reporters.

After she tore her hamstring in the 200 meters during the 1991 world championships heptathlon in Tokyo, attendants, including Kersee, were rushing her on a gurney outside the stadium to an awaiting ambulance when she ordered them to stop. Noticing that reporters were trailing them, she insisted they have an opportunity to ask her questions.

When Kersee protested, she told him, “They have a job to do.”

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“We’re not losing a great athlete from track and field,” Kersee said this week. “We’re losing a great person.”

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GOOD AS GOLD

Andre Miller of Utah took command down the stretch and the United States beat Australia, 93-85, in overtime to win the gold medal. C7

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