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Track stars have more than hyphens in common

January 30, 2012

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Anybody concerned that Alexa Harmon-Thomas might be putting too much on herself by participating in both track and field and soccer in the spring for Free State High needs to listen to Alexa’s idol talk about her teenage years.

“I was able to do three sports in high school,” three-time Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee said Friday night over dinner at Maceli’s. “Volleyball, basketball and track. And I was a cheerleader until I went to high school.”

A native of East St. Louis, Ill., Joyner-Kersee added that she worked at a movie theater.

“If the candy was damaged, you had to get rid of it. There was a lot of damaged candy,” Joyner-Kersee said, her infectious laugh lighting up the room. “When I got to high school, I told my coach (Nino Fennoy) I had to catch the bus after school and go downtown to my job. He told me, ‘You can’t be doing all this.’ I told him, ‘Well, you’re going to have to talk to my momma.’ So I gave up the job, gave up the cheerleading.”

She did not give up the other sports, even when it became obvious she had remarkable potential in track and field. Harmon-Thomas shouldn’t feel as if she needs to give up soccer, either, as long as she continues to love playing it.

Joyner-Kersee sat at the end of a long banquet table and Harmon-Thomas at the other end on a night when many minds met to discuss plans to make Lawrence a track and field hub with national youth competitions and downtown events featuring world-class athletes.

Before dinner, the woman chosen by Sports Illustrated as the greatest female athlete of the 20th century and the girl who at the age of 15 already qualifies as Lawrence’s top female athlete of the 21st century met and had a friendly chat.

They discussed their favorite events. Joyner-Kersee’s was the long jump. One of her three Olympic gold medals came in that event, the other two in the heptathlon. She participated in four Olympics and won seven medals. Harmon-Thomas’ is the high jump. As a freshman last season, Harmon-Thomas won a state title in that event and the 300-meter hurdles and placed second in the 100-meter hurdles and long jump. She has set multiple national age-group records.

They also discussed how much they dreaded the final of seven events in the two-day heptathlon, the 800 meters.

“You start the first day off, you’re all bubbly, happy,” Joyner-Kersee said. “The last day you’re on the verge of winning it, and you have to run the 800 meters. My lip used to drop. The world’s coming to an end.”

Joyner-Kersee had advice for Harmon-Thomas on how to deal with the monster at the end of the rainbow, the 800.

“You train for it,” she told her. “And the training portion is so important because it helps you psychologically. Even though I didn’t like running, I knew I had to be ready for it. So we would train for all seven events. I know some athletes just trained for strong events. I always focused on my weakest events, throwing events, high jump.”

Three-time world champion hurdler and Olympic silver medalist Greg Foster shook his head, indicating there was no such thing as a weak event for Joyner-Kersee.

The poised Harmon-Thomas made quite a favorable impression on Joyner-Kersee, who was informed of some of her times and distances.

“I think she’s a tremendous talent,” Joyner-Kersee said. “And just having that conversation with her, she’s humble, but she knows what she wants and is really focused. And then also she’s somewhat torn between soccer and the track. I know what it’s like to want to do more than one sport.”

Joyner-Kersee said based on their conversation she is convinced Harmon-Thomas is going about pursuing her goals in the right way.

“And she has a nice body type for it,” she said of the muscular, 5-foot-10, 135-pound Harmon-Thomas. “I enjoyed listening to her talk about the different events.”

Harmon-Thomas was part awestruck fan, part pupil taking in every word.

“She seemed really down-to-earth,” Harmon-Thomas said. “I was nervous to meet her at first because I’ve pretty much idolized her. And I started talking to her, and she just seemed like a regular person. It was great to meet all of them. It’s great to see all of them, and it’s great to see what I could become if I work hard.”

Harmon-Thomas enjoyed hearing that Joyner-Kersee was a multi-sport high school athlete.

“I still love soccer,” Harmon-Thomas said.

Through all the grueling workouts and high-pressure meets, Joyner-Kersee never lost the ability to laugh. That was perhaps the best lesson for Harmon-Thomas, who exhibits a similar joy for competition, to witness on a memorable Friday night.

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