A legend leaves with grace

Joyner-Kersee misses Olympic team, but helps Jones make it

July 17, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Jackie Joyner-Kersee has been compared with Jesse Owens before.

Yesterday, she made like Lutz Long, Owens' companion in one of the seminal moments in the Olympic saga.

Voted the greatest female athlete in the history of the Olympics, Joyner-Kersee added to her legacy in a most poignant way at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. She didn't make her fifth team, but instead assisted heir apparent Marion Jones through a hairy moment in the finals of the long jump.

Day Three of the U.S. trials at Cal State Sacramento's Hornet Stadium turned into a three-ring circus, and most performed without a net. Seven events climaxed in a little more than an hour, and only the finale had any certainty, as Michael Johnson breezed through the 400-meter dash in 43.68 seconds.

Television and the Internet could not convey the wealth of drama that played out in front of 23,503. As the women's long jump unfolded, there were simultaneous jump-offs for the third and final berths on the U.S. team in the men's pole vault and women's high jump, a crucible that left survivors bawling.

The Joyner-Kersee/Jones event recalled 1936, the year Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. During the long jump preliminary rounds at the Games, he struggled to get a legal attempt until he got some advice from silver medalist Long, a German. In befriending an American, and a black one at that, Long defied Adolf Hitler.

Jones, who dominated the 100 Saturday, is expected to add her own lengthy chapter to the Olympic history book in Australia. Her stated mission to win five gold medals was on shaky ground at about 1:30 p.m. Pacific time, however, as she fouled on her first two attempts in the long jump.

One more red flag on Jones' third attempt, and NBC would have been searching for a new lead story for Sydney. If network executives were gagging, Jones insisted she was calm as she prepared for her third attempt, albeit after a brief moment of doubt.

"In the blink of an eye, I said if I don't get into it, this dream is over," Jones said.

To become one of the eight jumpers in the 12-woman field to receive an additional three attempts, Jones needed to go only 21 feet, far off her personal best of 23-11 3/4 .

Jones looked into the stands and got signs of encouragement from her husband, C.J. Hunter, who the day before was second in the shot put, and her coach, Trevor Graham, who has come under criticism as Jones slopped through her approach this season. Then she paced on the infield and came upon her hero, Joyner-Kersee.

Joyner-Kersee, 38, was not here as a spectator. She had ended a two-year retirement to take a stab at making her fifth Olympic team. She began that fateful third round with a clutch jump of 21-10 3/4 that moved her into fourth place, then tried to boost Jones.

"We were talking throughout the competition," Jones said. "She said something along the lines of `get a fair jump and into the finals.' It was all positive."

The fastest woman in the world flew down the runway and stretched 22-1 3/4 . That lifted Jones into fourth place, so there was still work to be done. She took the lead with a leap of 22-7 in the fourth round, lost it momentarily to Dawn Burrell, and won with an effort of 23- 1/2 on her fifth attempt.

Joyner-Kersee finished sixth.

But with a 12-year-old world record in the heptathlon and three Olympic gold medals in her war chest, Joyner-Kersee had no complaints.

"I could never be disappointed," Joyner-Kersee said. "I've been on four Olympic teams."

Will she ever compete again?

Joyner-Kersee shook her head and said, "Not even in Masters."

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