ALAMOSA — Growing up with asthma in an underserved community in East St. Louis, Illinois, Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee credits her local Boys and Girls Club for her success.
"I had people that saw the potential in me that I did not know I had," said Joyner-Kersee to a group of community members at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the San Luis Valley on Saturday. "They taught me about not just being a great athlete, but also really just trying to be a great human being."
Joyner-Kersee mentioned that the club's volunteers gave her a foundation of support and love to get her through challenging times. "They made sure that I ate or that I had a winter coat," Joyner-Kersee said.
"I think it is important for the Boys and Girls Club to not only connect young people to mentors and role models, but also to give them a fighting chance and a place to go after school and be able to do homework and get assistance and really try to help them be productive citizens."
Joyner-Kersee, who has three gold medals, two bronze and one silver from four different Olympic games in the heptathlon and long jump, didn't start running until she was 9. "We didn't really have a track. I just ran in the park. I didn't really know what I was doing. In my first race I finished last but I said that I wanted to get better." When she was 14 and saw the 1976 Summer Olympics she knew that's what she wanted to do.
Addressing the younger ones in the crowd, she said athletics reveals character and gave her confidence without being arrogant and conceited. She also told them to stay healthy and motivated.
"It's easy to say to stay away from junk food but difficult to do," she said. "But also you have to find a balance. When I was your age I didn't eat all of the right food. You educate yourself and you start understanding why I just can't have five oatmeal cookies and go out in 110-degree weather and try to run."
Even if it's not running, she wants the kids to find their path.
"You don't have to be a great runner, but you have a great running school here at Adams State so you should all be out there running and having fun," she said. "Make sure you have fun doing it and then your passion will lead you to the things you want to do."
After presenting, Joyner-Kersee took a photo with all of the children, signed autographs and then prepared for the organization's annual gala that evening to celebrate 25 years of BGCSLV.
"I've always believed that I can only focus on the things I have control over and not let things I cannot control absorb my energy and take my mind and my physical being into a different direction."
Caption: Isabelle Parker, 11, holds Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee hands as the athlete tells her "you are important and you matter" at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the San Luis Valley on Saturday. Parker, who runs for Moffat Consolidate School District's cross country team, and her family drove all the way to Alamosa from a meet in Salida to see Joyner-Kersee.