Golden Girl

Jackie Joyner_Kersee
Six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee speaks at the 16th annual WIN for Columbia awards luncheon.

By Whitney Dreier

Jackie Joyner-Kersee has some advice for Columbia College’s inaugural cross-country and track teams. “Running is not new to them,” says the six-time Olympic medalist and heptathlon world record holder. “Competing collegiately is an opportunity to expand on something they’re already doing, but at the next level. They must be the trendsetters for the next generation of young people that’s going to come through. I would encourage them to really work together as a team, especially in cross country.”

Joyner-Kersee met with the team while on campus for the Women’s Intersport Network (WIN) for Columbia’s annual awards luncheon, held Feb. 5 in the Southwell Complex. Now a motivational speaker and philanthropist, 50-year-old Joyner-Kersee delivered the keynote speech at the event, which celebrates Columbia’s outstanding female athletes in conjunction with National Girls and Women in Sports Day.

Joyner-Kersee attended the WIN luncheon at the request of fellow Olympians Teri and Christian Cantwell, who reside in Columbia. Teri Cantwell, who threw the shot put in the Sydney Games, is the president of the organization. “Christian and my husband [Bobby Kersee], they hang a little bit,” Joyner-Kersee told the media. “They talked way before the Olympic Trials about the [WIN] event. When Bobby called, I was like ‘Well, why not?’”

Joyner-Kersee’s speech addressed the importance of encouraging and mentoring girls and women in sports. She shared her personal journey of competing in four consecutive Olympic Games and becoming the “greatest female athlete of the 20th century,” according to Sports Illustrated for Women.
“Don’t let someone tell you that can’t do something. Don’t let where you come from define who you are – define where you’re going. It’s not going to be easy; you have to always be willing to work harder, you can never be satisfied.” –Jackie Joyner-Kersee
“Growing up in East St. Louis, I really didn’t see myself going to the Olympic Games or doing the things I have been blessed to do on the athletic field,” she said. “I was very fortunate to get exposed to sports as a young girl through a community center – but I really wasn’t good! I just wanted to run track with my friends and be on the relay team.”

But as a 9-year-old, when Joyner-Kersee finished last in her first race – the 400 meters – she was determined to do better. “I said to myself: ‘If I can do a tenth of a second faster (if I’m running) or a half-inch farther (if I’m jumping), then I know the work I’m doing is paying off’,” she remembers. “That was my attitude throughout my career.”

Joyner-Kersee encouraged the audience to support young girls, women and even boys “because I beat my brother when I was younger – we need them for the competition,” she laughed. “It starts with events like this, people working together to give young girls, women, a voice. And that voice cannot be a voice that stands alone. We must stand together.”

Cougar Volleyball team
After her remarks, Joyner-Kersee handed out awards to prominent area athletes, including two Columbia College women. Volleyball coach Melinda Wrye-Washington received the Female Coach of the Year Award. Wrye-Washington has lead the team to 13 consecutive NAIA tournaments, including eight top-four finishes and one national championship. In 2012, Wrye-Washington guided her team to a second place finish in the NAIA championship and was named coach of the year. Her team finished the season with a 42-2 record and a No. 3 national ranking. Her nominator says: “Melinda is a true competitor and instills an unparalleled work ethic in her players.”

Senior volleyball setter Paula Ferreira received the Collegiate Sportswoman of the Year award. The NAIA player of the year led the 2012 Capital One Academic All-America College Division Volleyball Team. In 2012, Ferreira was named the American Midwest Conference Setter and Player of the Year for the third consecutive year and was named National Player of the Week twice. She led the Cougars with 1,766 assists and also contributed 171 kills, 82 services aces, 55 blocks and 338 digs. Her nominator says: “Paula is the most dedicated, talented and passionate student-athlete I have seen come through Columbia College.”

The afternoon’s Title IX Award went to the Columbia College volleyball program, which was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2012 for 30 seasons of excellence, including 20 straight conference championships, 19 consecutive National Championship appearances and three national titles. The honor is a special one-time award created in celebration of Title IX’s 40th anniversary. The legislation states that no person shall be excluded, on the basis of sex, from participation in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding.

Dr. Gerald Brouder was the only man to receive a WIN award that afternoon. Joyner-Kersee surprised the Columbia College president with the Kent Heitholt Memorial Award for his support of women’s sports at Columbia College. More than 70 women compete in six disciplines: basketball, softball volleyball, cross-country, golf and soccer. The latter three were added in 2012.

“Since Dr. Brouder’s arrival, the Cougar athletic department has transformed into the model for other NAIA schools,” says Cindy Potter, associate director of athletics and former student-athlete at Columbia College. “With the addition of four women’s sports and hosting two NAIA National Championships during his tenure, he has given even more females a chance to succeed.”

Brouder, Wyre-Washington, Ferreira and Potter (who was named WIN’s mentor of the year in 2009) are each embodied in the message Joyner-Kersee shared as she ended her keynote: “We do have some young girls who become young women – not just on the athletic field, but in the administration office and executive positions and decision-making positions – who can make girls’ sports a lot better. We need those voices, we need those voices to stand out, and we need for everyone to appreciate the talents of young people across the board. If you give the best you have, the best will come back to you.”

See the complete list of WIN award recipients.