Don't feel obliged to memorize Jackie Joyner's heptathlon world record of 7,158 points. Sure, that total makes her the best all-around female athlete in the world and the overwhelming favorite for a gold medal in the Seoul Olympics next year. And sure, no other heptathlete has ever broken 7,000 points.
But it's just a number. It's subject to change. And it is the least compelling way to describe the rangy, 25-year-old woman of 5'10" and 150 pounds who last August, in Houston, ran the 100-meter hurdles in 13.18, put the shot 49'10½", high-jumped 6'2", sprinted 200 meters in 22.85, long-jumped 23'¾", threw the javelin 164'5" and ran the 800 meters in 2:09.69.
Even those jolting performances appear on the page as mere digits. Some, of course, you can make fairly vivid. Pace off 23 feet; take a running start and try to jump from the kitchen through the family room and into the laundry hamper. And if you were to assemble a heptathlete's paraphernalia and spend a weekend hurling spears and gasping through half miles, you would end up with some sense of the staggering reality of Joyner's performances.
But you would capture little of the reality of her life. Joyner's tale is about more than an escape from a terrible neighborhood. She was shaped by a mother who bound her to excellence, by an older brother who was an admirer, defender and soul mate and by a coach who demanded the best use of her gifts and did it so selflessly that she eventually married him. Whereupon she bloomed even more grandly.
In truth, the metaphor for Jackie Joyner and her 27-year-old brother, Al, the 1984 Olympic triple jump champion, is a pair of glorious roses that have grown through cracks in the sidewalk. Their roots are in East St. Louis, Ill., which is not for a moment to be confused with the St. Louis across the Mississippi River in Missouri, portly and prosperous under its gleaming arch. East St. Louis, then and now, is a landscape of dwindling factories, idle packing plants and rusting rail yards, grim with boarded-up windows and waist-high weeds. The unemployment rate is 12.1%, 43% are at or below the government's official poverty level, and there are plenty of bars to absorb and redirect the furies of its rejected. Indeed, there were a liquor store and pool hall right across Piggott Street from the Joyner house. When Jackie was 11, she saw a man gunned down in that street after an argument.
Al and Jackie are the oldest of four children born to Mary and Alfred Joyner, who got married when Mary was 16 and Alfred 14. This early marriage was the central fact in the lives of both parents and offspring. Alfred Joyner spent a lot of time away from home when his children were growing up. He began working on construction jobs in other cities when Jackie was 10, and four years later he took a job as a railroad switch operator in Springfield, a two-hour trip from home. Mary worked as a nurse's assistant at St. Mary's Hospital.
Their house was little more than wallpaper and sticks, with four tiny bedrooms. During the winters, when the hot-water pipes would freeze, they had to heat water for baths in kettles on the kitchen stove. Their great-grandmother (on their father's side) lived with them until she died on the plastic-covered sofa in the living room while Jackie was at the store buying milk.
"I remember Jackie and me crying together in a back room in that house," says Al, "swearing that someday we were going to make it. Make it out. Make things different." Their mother was of the same mind, and she provided the formula: Study, be nice to people and understand that a single mistake can be devastating. She spoke from experience. Although her children turned out to be the loves of her life, she was determined that they would break the deadening cycle of children having children. "She transferred her aspirations to us," says Jackie.
"It felt funny," says Al, "when someone would ask my father why he didn't go to college [Alfred had been a pole vaulter and hurdler at Lincoln High School], and he'd look over and say it was 'cause of me."
A natural athlete and bright student both in grade school and at Lincoln High, Jackie enjoyed sports and school for the same reasons, a love of improving, of catching on to things, of earning praise. "In the fifth grade," she recalls, "the teacher explained how to do long division, and I didn't get it, didn't understand. But I came home and worked it out by myself. I was so thrilled that I called my mother. And then at school I got to sit at the front of the class. It was great."