Goosebumps appeared and chills ran down the spines of the masses at Beausejour Indoor Facility as arguably one of the greatest female athletes of all time delivered the feature address on the fourth day of the Sport in Black and White Conference, organized by the Sacred Sports Foundation.
American Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee gave an impassioned speech to those gathered who caught a glimpse of the decorated former track and field star. It was Joyner-Kersee’s first trip to the Caribbean islands, and she called her trip to St Lucia a blessing as it gave her an opportunity to reach out to a demographic close to her heart: The youth. And she encouraged them to expand their vision despite limitations.
“My focus was always on what I could do and what were the endless possibilities of the things I could accomplish. I didn’t know I had this gift in athletics to play basketball, to play volleyball, to do whatever sport I wanted to pursue because at the time when I was growing up versus today, girls sports were not appreciated back then like they are today. My mother and father wanted me to get an education. What I had going for me was to make sure that I empowered myself academically so I could choose my own path.”
Joyner-Kersee recalled her journey to Olympic supremacy, as a young girl from impoverished East St Louis, Illinois to becoming a multi-sport star at the renowned University of California, Los Angeles. Along the way she lost her mother to a deadly strain of meningitis and battled injury but still persevered to capture silver at the Los Angeles Games in 1984. Nineteen eighty-eight was her breakthrough year as she dominated in the heptathlon and long jump at the Seoul Games. She also picked up medals at the following Barcelona and Atlanta Games, in 1992 and 1996 respectively.
When asked about her drive, Joyner-Kersee’s philosophy was simple; a desire for constant development.
“If I continued to practice everyday, if I’m running and I improve a tenth of a second then that meant the work that I was doing was paying off. I could see that improvement so I knew I was getting better. I knew what they (the coaches) were telling me was helping me, it was motivating me. My motivation came from wanting to be one of the best. And one of the best for me wasn’t winning. It was knowing that every time I stepped in practice or every time I went to a competition I gave 100, sometimes a 110 percent. I gave everything I had to give,” she divulged.
She was candid about facing social injustice during her career but dismissed it as “mind over matter.” The track star admonished those in attendance against allowing negativity to dissuade them and implored them to concentrate instead on their own figurative race.
“When you have the talent it doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin is. And one of the greatest things is that each and every one of you that sit before me, you have a gift. You have the talent to change the minds of people all over this world but it’s left to you to want to pursue it. To utilize the resources that are available to you, to become one of the best. You gotta have the mind-set that it doesn’t matter what someone is doing over here or over there. It only matters what are able to do right here.”
She continued, “We all deal with people saying we can’t or we won’t. But we can’t allow that to stop us from achieving. We must continue to empower ourselves with the skills and knowledge, so when social injustice comes along you can fight it with your mind, not with physical or emotional outbursts.”
The star athlete alluded to the recent success of a fellow Caribbean island as proof that St Lucian dreams could materialize with a little help along the way and a large dose of faith.
“Don’t let your environment define you and don’t become a victim of your environment. You can change a doubter into a believer. Jamaica is doing it. People said the Americans could never be beaten. But someone believed in that little island and put the resources there. So you see it through their junior programs, you see it through their young people. Who says that it can’t be done here? We need the resources, we need the people who believe and if we can find that you can have Olympic champions in every event.”
Among the crowd was Minister for Commerce, Business Development, Investment and Consumer Affairs, and Gros-Islet representative Emma Hippolyte, who had delivered an address on the previous day but felt compelled to return to thank Joyner-Kersee for her visit. Hippolyte encouraged the youngsters to soak up the historic moment.
“This is a very, very important moment for you in your lives,” she said. “Those of you who have that dream, that vision, that desire to excel in your respective disciplines today is the day to be guided and motivated by one of the best.”