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Jackie Joyner-Kersee, April Holmes look to help aspiring female athletes and Chicago 2016 bid at fun run

Originally Published: June 24, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | For ESPNChicago.com

Not even the breeze generated from 750 park district campers racing by in an Olympic Day "Fun Run" could lower the heat on Chicago 2016 organizers Tuesday.

Chicago 2016 chairman Pat Ryan was among a group that included Olympians Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Michael Conley Sr. and Paralympian April Holmes who observed the festivities from a makeshift viewing stand at Washington Park. Ryan was still fielding questions regarding the somewhat covert negotiations involving guaranteed financing of the Games and his committee's stated intention to protect the city's taxpayers from risk, an issue that only promises to get hotter in the coming months.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiIn March Jackie Joyner-Kersee helped deliver the presentation from the Chicago delegation at the SportAccord conference in Denver.

But for the athletes involved with the promotion of Chicago as host city, it was best to stay outside the political fray.

"I'm an optimist," said Joyner-Kersee, a four-time Olympian and six-time medalist, "and I truly believe in the Olympic movement and not just believe in it, but I've experienced it and know what it has done for my life and the lives of people I know.

"There are people who train four years, some for 20 years, but it's one opportunity. And this is the one opportunity for Chicago to be able to host the Olympic Games."

Looking out over the crowd of youngsters lining up for a 400-meter run, Joyner-Kersee cautioned the kids not to trample each other before sounding the starter's horn. But at 47, she is still more than capable of diving in to help, if need be.

"To be honest, I'd rather be running with them than starting the race," she said.

Conley, another Olympic medalist involved in the Chicago 2016 effort, told the kids that he trained in Washington Park and he recalled those days as he stood on the Olympic medal stand.

"Most of you are what, about 9, 10?" he asked the kids. "You have a chance to actually compete in these Games."

By age 9, Joyner-Kersee had already run her first sanctioned race. "I finished last in the 400," she recalled. "I didn't know what I was doing."

By 13, however, she was the national champion in the pentathlon, and by 14, she decided she wanted to compete in the Olympics.

"But I didn't know that opportunity was ever going to present itself," she said. "I knew in my heart that's what I wanted to do, but I didn't know if I had the ability to do it."

She laughed at her real motivation.

"I always said to myself, 'I'm going to work hard' and I really wanted to get on TV by going to the Olympics," she recalled. "That was the big thing."

A state champion in track and basketball at East St. Louis High School, she participated in both at UCLA but lamented the lack of opportunities for female athletes outside of the Olympics at the time.

"A lot of times as a young person, you mimic what you see and a lot of times women's sports weren't on television," Joyner-Kersee said. "The talents of young ladies weren't really appreciated until probably '96, when the Olympics showcased women's softball, basketball and soccer."

Holmes, a gold medalist in the 100 meters in the Beijing Paralympics, said watching the '84 Olympics on television is what got her hooked.

[+] EnlargeApril Holmes
Krieger/Icon SMIApril Holmes (USA) in action during the IPC Athletics World Championships in Assen, Holland in 2006.

"It was as hot outside as I-don't-know-what, and my mom kept saying, 'April, you need to go out and play with the rest of the kids,'" said Holmes, who recently teamed with Michael Jordan in a public service announcement for the Chicago 2016 bid. "And I said, 'Mom, the Olympics are on. I can't possibly go outside.' So I sat up all day and night to watch the Olympics.

"As a kid, if you see the highest level in sport you can possibly achieve, of course it becomes your dream. But as time goes on and life goes on, your dream and your life starts going in a different direction. My primary focus was to get athletics to pay for my college tuition."

An All-American sprinter at Norfolk State, her life went in still another direction in 2001, when an accident boarding a train necessitated the amputation of her left leg below the knee at age 28. She turned her sights back to the Olympics when her doctor handed her a magazine article about the Paralympics.

"My very first thought was, 'This man is crazy,'" Holmes said of the doctor. "I didn't know anything about the Paralympics, I didn't know anyone disabled. But later, once I looked at the magazines and saw what possibilities lay ahead for me, that was my dream, that was my goal, to become the fastest person in the world and it didn't take more than two years."

Holmes marveled Tuesday at how life has come around "full circle. Here I am with Jackie and she was my hero," she said. "Her brother Al is my coach now and he won the gold medal in the triple jump in those '84 Olympics. And I watched Michael Jordan play and now I work for him [as the only female representative of Jordan's shoe line]."

While Ryan talked Olympic politics, the Olympians focused on what they called the priority of the day.

"I always want to believe I was a trail blazer and pioneer for a lot of things that didn't happen in my career or lifetime," Joyner-Kersee said. "Hopefully, people can say I was a good ambassador and a good example to open doors for women that come behind me, and hopefully those women will be good ambassadors for the next generation."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.