In class by self, Joyner-Kersee is also her toughest opponent


BARCELONA, Spain -- The world's greatest women's athlete is 30 years old and suddenly vulnerable.

A strained right hamstring is healed, but the memory of the pain still lingers. She no longer crushes the spirit of her rivals with unreachable numbers, and soaring leaps.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee's greatest foe isn't an opponent, it's herself.

She is trying to duplicate what amounts to track and field perfection. Four years ago, she came to the Summer Games of Seoul, South Korea and took away gold medals in the long jump and women's heptathlon. She made the harshest of events, seven tests of running, throwing and jumping, appear easy, and met pressure with a smile.

But as Joyner-Kersee approaches today's women's heptathlon at the Summer Olympics, she is neither an underdog nor an overwhelming favorite. Instead she's a reigning champ getting by on guile and guts.

Yet the combination may not be enough to offset the challenge of two Germans. Joyner-Kersee will meet Sabine Braun, whose point total of 6,985 exceeds Joyner-Kersee's 1992 best by 290. And in the long jump, it is Heike Drechsler who brings the greatest leap to Barcelona, a wind-aided 25- 1/2 .

At July's U.S. trials in New Orleans, Joyner-Kersee appeared to have a flashback in the midst of a race. Rounding the curve in the heptathlon 200, she lost her balance and waved her arms at the same spot in the race where she strained her right hamstring at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo.

"Fear got her," said her husband and coach, Bobby Kersee. "She was thinking about the injury. That ghost just hopped up on her back, tapped her, and reminded her of what happened in Tokyo."

Actually, Joyner-Kersee said it was a mismatched pair of shoes, more than the idea of reinjury, that sent her from a sprint to a wobble.

"But there is always fear," she said. "You don't concentrate on the fear. You concentrate on what it is going to take to be successful."

Joyner-Kersee's straightforward approach to training has carried her from the dusty streets of East St. Louis, Ill., to international stardom. The girl who was a cheerleader for a midget-league football team, lived on a diet of "chocolate, chocolate, chocolate," and raced against the guys on the corner of 14th and Piggott, grew to become the world's greatest women's athlete.

It's a title -- part myth, part reality -- that carries responsibility and pressure.

"When it comes down to being one of the most overlooked Olympians of all time, Jackie has not received her due," said her husband and coach Bobby Kersee. "If you took her out of the heptathlon, she could win the 200, the high jump, the long jump, and the 100 and 400 hurdles. Only one person in the world is capable of doing that."

Yet ever since she set the heptathlon world record of 7,291 at the 1988 Olympics, Joyner-Kersee has been the standard others have tried to reach, and surpass.

And now, the world is drawing closer. She gave up her heptathlon title and 15-event winning streak after withdrawing from the Tokyo world championships. She also lost her aura of invincibility.

"I honestly feel that I just want to go out there and just compete," she said. "Numbers don't mean anything if I don't win."

To keep her motivated, her husband is constantly prodding her, filling her schedule with new events.

"The reason I'm pushing her is this will be the last opportunity for Jackie to accomplish things like this," he said. "No one has ever seen the true individual athlete that Jackie is."

The 100 hurdles? No problem. The 400 hurdles? Well, that's a stretch. And the high jump? You must be kidding.

"The athlete listens to the coach, and the coach listens to the nTC athlete. . . . sometimes," Joyner-Kersee said.

But the husband and wife are able to balance their personal and professional lives.

"There are times I don't want to talk about my track job, because if I wasn't careful, I could talk about it 24 hours a day," Joyner-Kersee said. "When we leave the track, the disagreements don't follow us home. Track is something I do. But it should not dictate how I live."

But in recent months, Bobby Kersee has come to heed the pleas for rest from his wife. He has tailored her training schedule to achieve maximum results in the heptathlon. And, to point her in the proper direction, he gave her two rings for her 30th birthday -- one with seven diamonds, the other with three. The diamonds stand for 7,300 points.

"You can have all the Dan O'Briens and Dave Johnsons you want," Kersee said. "But maybe the world's greatest athlete just might be a female."

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