`A burning desire’: East St. Louis’ Jackie Joyner-Kersee offers inspiration to youths

The message to the young people gathered recently for a special weekend at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis was this - Pursuing your dreams in life and in sports take the same tools. Among them: A burning desire, a willingness to start early and finish late, listening to teachers and coaches, taking care of your mind and your body and much more.

And who better to lead the way in delivering the message than six-time Olympic medalist and East St. Louis native Jackie Joyner- Kersee - one of the greatest female athletes to ever walk the planet. Joyner-Kersee and other well-known guests spoke at the 28th annual Winning in Life events for youths earlier this month.

“We told them to work hard and to continue to listen to their coaches and teachers,” Joyner-Kersee said in an interview with the BND. “For me, academics comes first. If you are not doing what you are supposed to do in the classroom there is no way you would even see an athletic field. This was how my brother and I were raised.”

Joyner-Kersee’s brother is Al Joyner, Olympic medalist and coach. Joyner and fellow Olympic medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson, along with legendary East St. Louis High School track and field coach Nino Fennoy, all spoke at the Winning in Life motivational event. So did Jeffery Henderson, who won an Olympic gold medal in the long jump and is coached by Joyner.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee smiles during a question-and-answer panel with regional student athletes at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Community Center in East St. Louis, Ill. on April 12, 2024, during in the Winning In Life event. Joshua Carter/Belleville News-Democrat
Jackie Joyner-Kersee smiles during a question-and-answer panel with regional student athletes at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Community Center in East St. Louis, Ill. on April 12, 2024, during in the Winning In Life event. Joshua Carter/Belleville News-Democrat

“Academics is first and foremost. They must understand how academics and sports mirror one another,” Joyner-Kersee said. “ If you have to do a report, you have to read and do the research. If you are going to be on the field, you have to have confidence in self, self-respect, have a burning desire to do it even when naysayers say you can’t. The same principles apply to the classroom …”

Hundreds of youths from at least 16 schools in Illinois and Missouri attended the Friday April 12 motivational event and the JJK/Al Joyner Relays the next day. (East St. Louis High School girls and boys won the meet.)

At the motivational event, all of the speakers talked about how the journey to their ultimate goal took time, patience, sacrifices, determination, grit and listening to coaches and teachers.

Joyner-Kersee told the young people not to fixate their energy or attention on naysayers, but to channel all things positive on themselves. Their dreams and goals are theirs, and the only thing that stands in their way of accomplishing them is themselves.

She said she hopes the students grasped her message.

“This turns into determination and grit,” she said. “ Also you start realizing what your goals and values are and how service plays a part in that.”

Joyner-Kersee said the speakers at the Winning in Life event were motivated by helping the younger generation.

“No one is paying us to come here and say these things. We care and want to see this next generation succeed in their dreams and in life,” Joyner-Kersee said.

Joyner-Kersee started the Winning in Life program after she wrote her autobiography, A Kind of Grace. It turned into a curriculum to empower youths built around the 16 principles outlined in the book. Joyner-Kersee’s Winning in Life training series is now known around the country, taught by facilitators and available to educators and others. You can learn more about it at the JJK Foundation website.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee greets athletes from Hazelwood East High School during a rally at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Community Center in East St. Louis, Ill. on April 12, 2024. The center promotes a large array of community and athletic programs and bares a motto that Joyner-Kersee has displayed throughout her athletic and philanthropic career: Winning in Life. Joshua Carter/Belleville News-Democrat

At the motivational event, some asked about how to deal with mental and physical anxieties.

“We must all motivate this generation and make them know they can do anything they want to do as long as they put their minds to it,” Joyner-Kersee said.

“It’s okay to feel the butterflies, but understand where it is coming from. Don’t let it control you to the point where you can’t control it. I loved having butterflies because it forced me to focus on executing what I needed to do. Use it to your advantage. It is OK to not be OK. But recognize that you are not OK.

“ That’s where your teammates and coaches come in. Lean on them to help you. We all go through this.”

He was JJK’s coach. Dawn Harper’s too

Nino Fennoy began coaching Joyner-Kersee when she was 9 years old and continued through her high school years.

“Courage, honesty, desire, determination are all tools everyone needs to win in life,” Fennoy said.

He said each one of the former Olympians who spoke at the April 12 event showed a tremendous amount of dedication to stick to their goals and go on to win medals.

,”Winning in life takes body mind and spirit. And Jackie continues to be, fueled with those components” he said. “Also, we learn from our failures how you be successful.”

Fennoy said Joyner-Kersee connects with young people because “she sat where they were sitting.”

“The difference now is social media. Teenagers can basically do what they want on Tik Tok and other social media platforms without a coach or anyone else responding,” he said. “ The response comes from their audiences. But, the rules to success are the same.”

He shared memories of the days he coached Joyner-Kersee. He knew back then she had what it takes to be great.

“She had a glow. She had a smile which encourages a coach to want to coach a student. She listened and asked questions,” Fennoy said.

And she was willing to do the work, he said.

“The success principles are the same. It just depends on what your life quest is,” he said. “ To be a successful business person you have to have discipline, you have to be honest. Whatever desire you have in your head, you have to push that to the limit.”

Fennoy said it’s important to remember that at one time, everyone was a teenager. “ We have to continue to feed young people the principles,” he said. “ The cornerstone is right and wrong. We have to teach them right from wrong and how to admit they are wrong when they are wrong.”

Fennoy has been coaching for 47 years. “Someone brought joy and happiness into my life in sports,” he said. “And they didn’t have to do it. But, they did. The enjoyment and fun from that still burns.”

Now she’s the inspiration

Olympic gold medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson dances as she arrives at the Winning in Life event at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Community Center in East St. Louis, Ill. on April 12, 2024. The event came prior to a track meet the next day and speakers discussed mindsets and athletic professionalism. “If I ever feel nervous before a race starts,” Harper-Nelson said, “I just remind myself that I put in the work. I deserve to be here.” Joshua Carter/Belleville News-Democrat

Another star athlete that Fennoy coached in high school was Dawn Harper-Nelson.

Harper-Nelson told the BND she always loves talking to young people and sharing with them that she felt the same anxieties they are feeling when she was their age.

Harper-Nelson noted that Joyner-Kersee over the years has brought some of the greatest athletes in the world to East St. Louis. And she was in the audience listening years ago.

“That was just so mind-blowing that I could see, touch and hear some of the athletes I had seen on TV,” she said. “ And the fact that Jackie was coached by Coach Fennoy. “

Harper-Nelson was inspired by those athletes, had a dream and a goal and a great support system as she worked to achieve her own success.

“I wanted to be one of those athletes she (Jackie) brought back to talk about their experiences and how they made it,” Harper-Nelson said.

And that dream came true on Friday. Harper-Nelson said she heard her name and Olympic Gold medalist announced at the JJK Center and thought “That is so crazy.’’ It was just like when she sat in the audience at a young age listening to and hearing some of the same things she and the other motivational speakers told the youth.

“It will forever be mind blowing,” she said, chuckling.

Her motivation to excel came from believing she was blessed with a gift.

“I wanted to see how far this gift could take me. I believed I could go to the Olympics, but I just wanted to see how far this gift could take me,” she said.

“That’s what gave me a different drive, and my faith in God. Through all of the ups and downs, knee surgeries, and injuries, “ she said. “It was like ‘ OK. That was part of my journey to be great.’”

Quitting was not an option, she said.

Growing up in East St. Louis was not something Harper-Nelson ever felt would hinder her from capturing her dream.

“It’s the people who are surrounding you. People like Coach Fennoy told us we were great so much. He was relentless,” she said.

When it was time to take pictures, instead of saying `Cheese’, Fennoy told his young athletes to say ``Champions.”

And then there was here mom, Linda Harper. “My girl,” she exclaimed.

“She has always been so supportive. I love her and thank her very much for everything she has done for me,” she said.

Harper-Nelson wanted the young people not to recognize her as an Olympic gold medalist at first sight , but to be reminded she sat in the same place where they were sitting on Friday.

“See me as that young girl who stood in line to ask questions of all of the great athletes who Jackie brought here,” she said. “See me as that child who had … the hopes and dreams, but in reality I had no idea if I was going to get there. You cannot control how things 100 percent play out. I had some of the same nerves, same insecurities ...

“We all have experienced that, but we did not let that determine how we would live our lives and the future that we had ahead of us,” Harper-Nelson said.

Henderson said one key to mental strength is to stay positive, even in the face of injuries, which he has experienced as an athlete. And keep things simple.

“A lot of time athletes, in high school, college or professional sports, overthink everything. They make it so hard on themselves,” he told the BND. “Just simplify things. Don’t have 10- 15 cues. Give yourself what works for you. Keep everything simple.”

Henderson is still using that positive, keeping-things-simple approach to athletics. At 35 years old, now married with a 1-year-old child, Henderson still has the itch for track and field. He is training for the Olympic Games in Paris this summer.

Henderson called the Winning in Life event in East St. Louis “inspiring , amazing.”

Joyner-Kersee summed things up this way

“In the end we don’t want just gold medalists on the field,” she said. “ We want great people in the world, successful people who believe that they could do whatever they set their minds to.”