She returned to UCLA filled with grief. The first person to offer comfort was an assistant track coach, an intimidating man named Bob Kersee. "I found that amazing, because I didn't know him beyond his being a coach," she says. "But he said if I had doubts and needed to talk them out, I could come to him. He had lost his mother at 18, too."
Kersee was then 27. If he was intimidating, it was because small talk wasn't his métier. He went right to the heart of things. The grandson of a Baptist preacher, he was a Navy brat who was born in Panama and raised in a dozen states. He graduated from San Pedro (Calif.) High School. The epitome of the second-echelon athlete who absorbs his sports so well he can teach the most talented, Kersee cannot remember when he didn't coach. "Even as a kid, I studied coaches. I played basketball and ran track from a coach's point of view." He graduated from Long Beach State in 1976 with a degree in exercise physiology and did postgraduate work at Cal State-Northridge before going to UCLA as an assistant in 1980, just a few months before Mary Joyner died.
"I tried to protect Jackie from the 'now I'm the mom' syndrome," says Kersee. "Having her Aunt Della take responsibility for Al and their two sisters was a help. It wasn't time for Jackie to feel the pains of motherhood."
But it was time for the pains of the heptathlon. Until then, Joyner had been perceived as a basketball player and long jumper. For four years she started at forward for the Bruins. As a senior she led them to a 20-10 record, was the team's top rebounder (9.3 per game) and had a 12.7-point scoring average.
As a freshman in track, though, she didn't improve, in spite of her diligent training. "I jumped too much," she says now.
Kersee, the women's sprint coach, wasn't in charge of Joyner, but he had eyes. "I saw this talent walking around the campus that everyone was blind to," he says. "No one was listening to her mild requests to do more. So I went to the athletic director and made him a proposition."
A Kersee proposition is an ultimatum. "Either I coached her in the hurdles, long jump, and multievents, or I'd quit, because to go on as she had would be an abuse of her talent. Another bad year and she'd go concentrate on basketball, which I considered a waste. Women's basketball careers just come to a stop after college."
No longer could Jackie ignore the glare of her potential. "He showed me on paper first," she says. "Jane [Frederick, for 10 years the best American pentathlete and heptathlete] was beating me by 400 points in just two events, the shot and javelin."
"And Jackie has never lost the 200 in a heptathlon," says Kersee. "Her raw speed is the best. Yet everyone could beat her in the hurdles." Gradually, Kersee got Jackie to harness her gifts of speed and spring to the proper techniques. "By 1982, I could see she'd be the world record holder."
At times, Jackie fought it. She was loath to deemphasize basketball, and training for the throws and 800 meters seemed to compromise her beloved long jump.