The passing of Title IX 40 years ago Saturday actually prevented Jackie Joyner-Kersee from excelling in even more sports.
As a track and field and basketball standout at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis, Ill., she had the opportunity to get a college athletic scholarship -- which she did to UCLA in 1980. She also was able to make a career in sports -- which she did by winning six medals at four Olympic Games. But Jackie Joyner needed to pare down her extracurricular schedule.
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That meant no more cheerleading, which she had done since elementary school.
"My [track] coach told me I couldn't do that anymore," Joyner-Kersee said. "I said, 'Well, why [can't I]? I'm the best one.' He said, 'I don't care how good you are. You can be good at this, too.' "
Turns out, her coach was right. Joyner-Kersee, who was 10 when Title IX passed in 1972, went on to become the most decorated American woman in Olympic track and field history with three golds, a silver and two bronzes.
She won back-to-back heptathlon gold medals in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and 1992 Games in Barcelona, where her 7,291-point performance remains a world record. In 2000, Sports Illustrated for Women named her the greatest female athlete in history.
On Monday, Joyner-Kersee was at Lincoln Center to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the passing of Title IX, which requires gender equity in all educational and athletic programs that receive federal funding. The event included a screening of the ESPN-produced documentary "Sporting Chance," which discusses the impact of Title IX.
Said Joyner-Kersee, "I can see where I have benefited from the women who came way before me who probably imagined that this day would come. I will always be indebted to them. And then this generation today, my message to them is to constantly remember why we are able to do this and not take this for granted. Because there can always be someone wanting to change the law."
Creating more athletic opportunities for girls at the "grassroots level" and hiring more women coaches are two things Joyner-Kersee believes can be done to advance the Title IX ideal.
The spirit of Title IX will be on display throughout this week at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., said Joyner-Kersee, who serves on the board of directors of USA Track & Field. With past gold medalists such as Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross returning for a shot at the 2012 London Games, and Lolo Jones arguably becoming the face of the U.S. team, Joyner-Kersee foresees the women garnering just as much, if not more, attention than the men this week.
"A lot of our athletes are four years older, a lot more experienced and also have that tenacity now, that hunger," Joyner-Kersee said. "Before, I'm not saying they felt like they were entitled, but they had an attitude like, 'Hey, we're the USA.' Now we're coming for you like y'all were coming for us."
Now 50, Joyner-Kersee mentors the new wave of female athletes. She advises them to acknowledge the past as a way to understand the position they're in today.
"It's really educating them on Title IX. Learn the history. Learn where you're in a position to make 'X' amount of dollars,'' she said. "Years ago, we were just happy to be able to compete for a medal. Understand these opportunities and don't take them for granted.''