Sports Illustrated’s “Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century” Jackie Joyner-Kersee

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Olympic triple Gold Medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee became the world’s top woman athlete in the heptathlon and long-jump competitions, despite severe asthma.

While she was a top student-athlete at UCLA in the early 1980s, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was diagnosed with asthma. But she hid that fact from her coaches, afraid they would make her stop running.
“I was always told as a young girl that if you had asthma there was no way you could run, jump, or do the things I was doing athletically. So, I just knew it was impossible for me to have it. It took me a while to accept that I was asthmatic. It took me a while to even start taking my medication properly, to do the things that the doctor was asking me to do. I just didn’t want to believe that I was an asthmatic.
“But once I stopped living in denial, I got my asthma under control, and I realized that it is a disease that can be controlled. But there were things I had to do to get it under control.”
In 1984, Joyner-Kersee won the Olympic Silver Medal in the 7-event Heptathlon. In 1986, she was the first American woman to set a world record in a multi-event competition. In 1987, she was voted the Associated Press Athlete of the Year. In 1988, she won two Olympic Gold Medals. And in 1992, she won Olympic Gold and Bronze medals. Sports Illustrated voted Joyner-Kersee “The Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century.”
“The most important thing is to be able to run, jump, and get up in the morning and see my family and do different things,” she says. “And to do that, I have to take my medicines regularly. This disease can be controlled.”
Since her days as an athlete, Joyner-Kersee has accomplished much as a philanthropist and tireless advocate for children’s education and health issues (including asthma), among other areas of interest. She was also featured in the National Library of Medicine’s Breath of Life exhibition on the history of asthma.


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