BLOOMINGTON — What Sports Illustrated's Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century treasures most from her athletic career was not the six times she stood to receive medals at four Summer Olympics.
"What I treasure most is the work that went into being the best," Jackie Joyner-Kersee told members of Illinois Wesleyan University's track and field team Tuesday.
"My best wasn't winning," she said. "It was knowing that when I went onto that track, I would do my best."
Joyner-Kersee spoke with the student-athletes in an impromptu question-and-answer session at the 19th Women's Health Night at IWU's Shirk Center, Bloomington.
About 2,000 people attended the five-hour event — presented by Illinois Heart & Lung Foundation — which also included a speech by Joyner-Kersee and a fun run with her. More than 60 vendors also provided health screenings and information.
"Her speech was inspiring," student-athlete Amelia Glueck said following Joyner-Kersee's Q&A. Glueck hugged the first lady of track and field following her remarks.
Glueck, 21, a Tremont native who is a junior at IWU majoring in health and wellness, is a long jumper who is working through injuries.
"Yesterday was a low point," she admitted. "Hearing her today gave me the drive to go forward.
"She talked about setbacks and coming back from injuries," Glueck said. "It put me in the right mindset.
"We're a close team," Glueck said. "This was important to us."
Joyner-Kersee won medals at the 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games in the long jump and heptathlon (100-meter hurdles, long jump, javelin throw, 200-meter run, high jump, 800-meter run and shot put). She holds the world heptathlon record.
"I had to go to that line believing I could do it," Joyner-Kersee, 55, told The Pantagraph. "Putting in the work gave me the confidence."
Joyner-Kersee didn't have an easy path. She grew up in poverty in East St. Louis and has struggled with asthma her entire life. She was diagnosed at age 18 but it wasn't until four years later that she took it seriously.
"I didn't take my medicine every day like I should have," she admitted. During one training session she suddenly couldn't breath.
"I was frightened," she said. She learned to take her medicine regularly, to avoid or manage asthma triggers and to work more closely with her primary care physician and, later, a pulmonologist.
"I stopped looking at doctors and nurses as the enemy and began looking at them as coaches," she said.
Dr. Chae Chu, a pulmonologist with Advocate Medical Group, told Joyner-Kersee that when young people diagnosed with asthma ask him "Will my life be limited by this?" he tells them "One of the greatest athletes of all time is an Olympian who won gold medals with her asthma."
"You can't let it limit you," Chu said he tells young patients. "You need to take your medicine and avoid and manage your triggers."
"Not a week goes by that I don't use you as an example," Chu told Joyner-Kersee.
"Thank you. You are my athletic hero," he said. Then they hugged.
Joyner-Kersee lives in St. Louis and has a foundation and center in East St. Louis, "where we use sports as a hook to get kids in the door and provide them with a safe place to learn life skills," she said. The center also provides seniors with physical activity.
"Jackie exemplifies what it means to be fit in all aspects of your life," said Sarah Gliege of Illinois Heart & Lung. "Fitness can change in an instant but it can remain a part of who you are. She inspires people to be the best version of themselves."
"My message is the same for all," Joyner-Kersee said. "You gotta work hard, both on and off the field. We all face difficult times. Never give up.
"There is a story within all of us," she said. "You determine what you want your story to be. You have the power to do that."