The woman chosen by Sports Illustrated magazine as the greatest athlete of the 20th century spent Friday going to bat for the city of Lawrence and for track and field.
Former heptathlete and long-jumper Jackie Joyner-Kersee, winner of three Olympic gold medals, a silver and two bronze medals; Olympic sliver-medalist hurdler and three-time world champion Greg Foster; and former Olympic 4X400 runner Darnell Hall are part of a group that wants to see Lawrence become a hub city for track and field. They all were in town Friday meeting about multiple events.
The success of the Kansas Relays’ moving the shot-put downtown has inspired bigger ideas.
Bob Sanner, executive director for the Lawrence Sports Corporation, spent part of his day discussing with city manager David Corliss his desire to bring as many as three AAU national sporting events to Lawrence, with athletes ages 5 to 18 competing.
Sanner also visited with Mayor Aron Cromwell to let him know of tentative plans to bring world-class athletes to Lawrence this summer to compete in downtown track and field events.
The AAU’s national athletics chairman Robin Brown-Beamon of Miami was in town to evaluate Lawrence as a potential site for cross country championships, as soon as 2013, indoor track championships, as soon as 2013, and for the national Junior Olympics, as soon as 2017. Lawrence was the host city for the Junior Olympics in 1988.
“This was quite a surprise,” Brown-Beamon said hours after meeting with Sanner and Corliss. “I did not know what to expect because Lawrence is off the beaten path. I’m pleasantly surprised at the quality of your facilities and in how proactive this city is and how willing the city is to invest to making this a special place.”
Brown-Beamon said members of her staff raved about Rim Rock Farm as a potential site for the cross country national championships, and she said she plans to see it today.
“Lawrence is not what we thought it was,” Brown-Beamon said. “This is a great little town. If Bob stays steady on the things that he plans, this can definitely be an amateur-sports destination. You have everything you need here. You have the facilities because you have the university here. You can do basketball. You can do volleyball. You have the track. You basically have everything you need here.”
She estimated 3,000 athletes would compete in cross country, roughly 2,500 in indoor track and about 15,000 in the Junior Olympics.
Plans for lighting up Lawrence with track and field sooner than those events include having world-class men’s and women’s athletes competing in the high hurdles, pole vault, long jump and 100 meters in downtown events on the weekend of July 15. The tentative plans call for youth races as well.
“It gives you an up-close-and-personal feel,” Foster said. “At a stadium, the athletes look so far away, and the fans can’t say anything to them. Believe it or not, these athletes are all very personable.”
Foster recalled fondly running an outdoor hurdles race in New York City at Times Square in the early 1980s.
“I’m telling you, I enjoyed it so much it was truly unbelievable,” Foster said. “We had a clinic the day before. They actually had us going over hurdles and showing people how to hurdle. We are going to do that here, too.”
Joyner-Kersee said she never had the pleasure of competing in a downtown event.
“I wish they did have that back in the day because that’s all I trained on was the streets,” she said. “I think the excitement of it and really the creativity, having a live band, ordinary people not used to track meets can learn more about track and field and also about different athletes.”
Kansas pole vault coach Tom Hays and his son, Ryan Hays, said they long have discussed the possibility of having a downtown pole-vault event, which led to discussions about having other events as well.
Foster and Joyner-Kersee would be on hand and would have their specialty events named after them. The biggest hurdle for Joyner-Kersee, Foster and others to clear now is lining up enough sponsors to entice the athletes to come to Lawrence.