The athletes in this week’s National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships at Hornet Stadium received a special treat Thursday – a visit from gold medalists Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Dwight Phillips.
About 200 of the competitors, ages 7 to 18, and spectators lined up for autographs and photos with the retired track and field stars, though some are too young to remember Joyner-Kersee or Phillips atop the medal podium.
Still, Tyishea McWhorter, a high school long jumper from Kitsap County, Wash., appreciated meeting them.
“Now I can go home and research on it,” she said.
If some of the youngsters don’t remember the gold medalists, their parents should.
Joyner-Kersee, considered one of the greatest female athletes of all time, won three Olympic gold medals and still holds the world record of 7,291 points in the heptathlon, set at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. In her last competition at Hornet Stadium, Joyner-Kersee, at 38, failed to qualify for the 2000 Summer Olympics – it would have been her fifth Olympics – when she finished sixth in her favorite event, the long jump.
Even though she came up short in her final event in Sacramento, Joyner-Kersee thinks it’s a great city for track and field.
“I have always loved the atmosphere,” said Joyner-Kersee. “And you know you’re always going to get great weather.”
Sprinters, jumpers and throwers prefer to keep their muscles warm, so they often aren’t affected by Sacramento’s 100-degree heat.
Phillips, who won the long jump at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, qualified for the event at Hornet Stadium at the Olympic Trials that year.
“This place has special significance for me,” he said.
Joyner-Kersee, 54, and Phillips, 38, work for USA Track and Field; Joyner-Kersee is on the board of directors, and Phillips is the chairman of its Athlete Advisory Committee.
Joyner-Kersee, who competed for youth track and field teams in East St. Louis, Ill., said she wants to promote the sport by helping similar grassroots programs raise money and recruit volunteers.
“My heart and soul has always been with the sport,” she said.
Joyner-Kersee and Phillips look forward to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Phillips said the United States’ track and field team is one of the most talented in Olympic history and the long jumpers could win all six medals.
“I have 100 percent confidence that (the athletes) are prepared and excited to represent the red, white and blue,” he said.
Joyner-Kersee said she’s excited to watch the sprinters, particularly Allyson Felix, who is coached by Bob Kersee, Jackie’s husband.
Joyner-Kersee and Phillips signed autographs and posed for pictures for more than an hour in a tent next to the track. Inspiring the next generation of track and field stars is important to Joyner-Kersee, who tells young Olympic hopefuls to stick with the events that they enjoy most – not just the ones they are best at.
“If you can do five or six different events, do them. You can specialize as you continue to grow. Have fun at this young age,” she said.
Joyner-Kersee said as a child she never imagined she would become the world’s best multi-event athlete.
“I had never run hurdles. … Who would have thought that I would end up doing the pentathlon, then the heptathlon and would go on to be the Olympic champion?”
Meet at a glance
- What: National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships
- Who: 7,500 athletes, ages 7 to 18
- When: Continues through Sunday
- Where: Hornet Stadium, Sacramento State
- Tickets: $15 daily; ages 7-12 $7; 6 and under free