Vahe Gregorian

Jackie Joyner-Kersee epitomizes spirit of WIN for KC

Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee spoke to a crowd of more than 1,500 people Thursday at the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center for the WIN for KC Women’s Sports Awards Celebration.
Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee spoke to a crowd of more than 1,500 people Thursday at the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center for the WIN for KC Women’s Sports Awards Celebration.

Her grandmother insisted the baby born on March 3, 1962, be called Jackie.

That was a tribute to then-President John F. Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline.

But it also was meant as a nudge for the girl to one day become “first lady of something,” Jackie Joyner-Kersee recalled Thursday with a sheepish giggle.

That first-ladyship turned out to be in track and field, of course.

She so dominated the sport with six Olympic medals, including two in the grueling heptathlon, that she become widely regarded as the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.

Even 32 years after her first Olympics and 20 after her last, even though she can’t help but laugh when she hears Olympic theme music played in her honor, Joyner-Kersee still stands for so much that all can learn from.

Not the least of that is her guileless and gracious way, which animated her words as the keynote speaker at the WIN for KC women’s sports award celebration on Thursday at the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center.

More than 1,500 attended this brilliant affair to honor and encourage women’s athletics, an event that if not unique to Kansas City almost certainly is so in its scope and depth and emphasis.

To a riveted audience, JJK spoke humbly of her rise in the sport from thorny East St. Louis, Ill., where she remembered losing her first organized race as a 9-year-old but being encouraged by coaches such as Nino Fennoy who “saw potential in me I didn’t know I had.”

She remembers her “knees knocking” at a starting line during her first Olympic Trials in 1980, when then-Stanford women’s track coach Brooks Johnson approached and whispered, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

She was baffled by this from a man she didn’t know … who would become her coach with the 1984 U.S. team in Los Angeles, where she still didn’t know what she was doing.

Even though she’d been cleared for competition, a leg injury was distracting her and left her at the starting line “not thinking like a champion” and “looking for an excuse.”

As she was “searching for a pain that wasn’t there,” she was expending energy, a psychological defeat that she considered “unbearable.”

Never mind that she, in fact, won a silver medal in the heptathlon.

All of this reinforced the most salient points of her appearance: having faith in your own dreams and staying true to who you are and choosing carefully the company you keep and, of course, persevering.

This was a particularly resonant message at this event, and perhaps particularly so at a time when Sarah Thomas has become the first NFL referee and Jessica Mendoza is broadcasting baseball for ESPN and two women have become NBA assistant coaches …

And a time when equity in opportunity for women still remains elusive, from funding for girls and women’s sports to the presence of women in boardrooms.

Not that you’d have known in this energized room, a place where you’d be reminded that nine out of 10 women executives once were athletes and that playing youth sports correlates with fewer crimes, drug addictions and instances of pregnancy in young girls.

As she spoke in a Q-and-A format with the Kansas City Sports Commission’s WIN for KC director Lisa Diven, JJK was surrounded by local women with their own important and inspiring stories. Along with two-time NWSL champions FC Kansas City, they were recognized after a stirring march of champions that recognized about 200 female Kansas and Missouri state champions from the area.

Their tales were a tapestry of hopes and possibilities and needs that yet remain in women’s athletics — and examples of what can happen with courage and persistence and an insistent do-it-yourself mentality.

Here was Kelly Siebert, honored with the Hallmark Leadership Award for starting from scratch a girls lacrosse program when there was none available for her daughter in the Northland. So what if she had never played the game? Voila, the Park Bulldogs lacrosse program has three teams participating in the KC Metro Youth Girls League … and her daughter and other peers now hope to play in college.

Then came 13-year-old Clair Tietgen, whose story was beautifully told by Star columnist Sam Mellinger last year but continues to bear mention as one of overcoming bullying that left her writing suicide notes. The winner of the Children’s Mercy Youth Sports Girl Award seized control of her life through mixed martial arts and now campaigns against such abuse in part with the help of celebrities she has convinced to share their own experiences.

At 90, UMB Senior Sportswoman Award winner Marilyn Deister has had an impact on more than two generations of athletes since founding the Kansas City Sea Sprites in 1951 — more than 13,000 voluntary synchronized swimming practices ago.

Katie Sowers was recognized as the Kissick Construction Teamwork Award winner as the athletic director for Kansas City Parks and Recreation and general manager of the Kansas City Titans women’s football team — and recently was an assistant coach in the East-West Shrine Game.

Alana Vawter of Staley High won the Lockton Cos. Resiliency Award after battling Stevens-Johnson syndrome, which put her in the ICU with more than 90 percent of her body covered in blisters and emergency surgery required to save her eyes. Two years later as a freshman, Vawter was part of the softball team that won a state championship.

JJK represents a fusion of all this: overcoming and enduring and forging her own way when there were so many forces telling her no way.

Crime-riddled East St. Louis was teeming with trap doors, and it was no less so around her house, outside of which she saw a man shot when she was 11. Some days her father came home drunk, and her grandmother was shot to death by her own husband. Her mother died from a rare form of meningitis when JJK was a freshman at UCLA.

Lots of reasons, in other words, to not think like a champion and to seek excuses or give in to pain that actually was there.

But she had the dream, the drive and the determination, to borrow one of her mantras in her motivational work today.

Those traits led her to more people around her, such as her demanding mentor and future husband, Bob Kersee, who saw something in her she didn’t know she had.

Potential that’s in everyone, she’ll have you know — a message that was reinforced many times Thursday in a room filled with examples.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian