It was a schoolyard fist fight in junior high that made Jackie Joyner-Kersee realize she wasn’t living up to her potential. An assistant principal told the young track and field athlete to go to the office, and said that teachers and administrators expected more from her.
“It really clicked because it wasn’t that I expected better things of myself,” the three-time Olympic gold medalist and four-time Olympian told principals Wednesday morning during the closing general session of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) conference in Orlando. “He shined a light to help me realize I could do better.”
During her conversation with NAESP Executive Director L. Earl Franks, Joyner-Kersee compared her journey to the lessons that principals learn as school leaders.
“Preparation is everything,” she said. “Control the things you can control and then find the right support to help you reach the goals you’re trying to achieve.”
She viewed her victories as a team effort that included her coach/husband, her throwing coach and her physical therapist, and she said she was a success because her team was a success.
Now, she approaches the work of the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, which focuses on after-school programs and students’ academic and character development, with the same mindset. In her hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois, the foundation has built a large community center on 37 acres — her way of giving back to the community. It was because of a community center in East St. Louis that he was able to participate in sports and develop her athletic ability.
“The challenge is getting the right people,” she said, adding that principals, too, need to assemble teams with the right chemistry. Just as she worked with her trainers on the areas where she was weak, she said, “Whatever you feel you need to make the team stronger, work on filling that void.”
Joyner-Kersee, who grew up in poverty, had asthma and lost her mother when she was 18, also talked about the support she received from other educators that helped her focus on being both athletically and academically driven. “I didn’t understand the impact the librarian was having on my life at that point, as a 9-year-old,” she said.
She also encouraged principals to take time for themselves and to build networks of educators in their buildings that can support each other.
“The investment you make today, that return will come years down the road,” she said. “The seeds that you plant you eventually see them blossom.”