The logic is this: Three of the heptathlon's tasks are the 200 meters, the 800 meters and the 100-meter hurdles—speed, endurance and hurdling. "Training for one event keeps me strong in three," she says. "But I'm also taking this very seriously, for its own sake."
Joyner-Kersee isn't quite a novice at the 400 hurdles. In 1985 she was second in the event at the NCAA championships and later that year ran her personal best of 55.05, but then she focused on obliterating the heptathlon record. In San Jose, there were no thoughts of going for the world record of 52.94 set by Marina Stepanova of the U.S.S.R. in 1986. "With all the missed training, I was frightened," she says. "I didn't know how much strength would be there."
So her coach and husband, the ebullient Bob Kersee, fashioned a race plan based on caution and on Joyner-Kersee's hurdling peculiarities. She has, as do most hurdlers, a "dominant" leg. If possible, she would lead over every barrier with her left. But 400 hurdling doesn't always fit into such a neat package. "If she takes 13 steps between hurdles, she's got to sprint so hard she's shot by 300," says Kersee. "And 15 steps is too slow. It's got to be 14."
Alas, taking 14 steps forces Joyner-Kersee to alternate her leading leg at every hurdle, which limits her in establishing a race rhythm. But she accepted the necessity of that and maximized her efficiency with a stride pattern that had her leading with her dominant left leg over the crucial 10th and last obstacle.
At the gun, the wind whipped up and caught her as if she were the spinnaker of a sailboat. "I was too high over the first hurdle," Joyner-Kersee said. She ran tentatively, feeling her way and losing her race plan. Thus she had to lead with her weaker right leg over the second through sixth hurdles. This got her nowhere. At 200 meters, an upstart, Victoria Fulcher, had a clear lead while Joyner-Kersee struggled. "I kept hoping, hurdle after hurdle, for my left to come up, my strong side," said Joyner-Kersee. "It was lack of experience, mentally not knowing where I was."
Finally, at the seventh hurdle, in the final turn, Joyner-Kersee's steps clicked in. She roared past Fulcher at the eighth hurdle, had to take short, choppy steps and lead again with her right leg over the ninth, but recovered to make the last leap in fine, strong lefty style. She won in the slow time of 57.15. Fulcher ran 57.55, and finished second.
Kersee had watched the wrong-legged journey in helpless misery. "Tell that girl to remember that she wears her wedding ring on the left hand," Stanford coach Brooks Johnson kiddingly yelled to him. "That was awesome. Only an athlete of her quality could have pulled it out that late."
"She can do three seconds faster," said Kersee. Then he offered a bold prediction. "A 54.1 or better. She'll get the American record [of 54.23 by Judi Brown King] by the end of July."
Still Joyner-Kersee was pleased. "I'm in better shape than I thought," she said. "Once I get the mechanics, the times will come." She was last seen patiently writing elaborate personal messages on meet programs dictated by some of the millions of young friends who flocked to her side. Thus are the tiny torches kindled, the seasons extended.