NEW YORK -- Gold Nikes and black tuxes? Pink high-tops paired with designer gowns? Must be USA Track & Field’s annual Black Tie & Sneakers Gala, where current track and field stars mix with legends to celebrate the best in their sport.
At this year’s gala, held Thursday at New York City’s Armory, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in heptathlon and long jump, and Dick Fosbury, the 1968 gold medalist in high jump, were honored with Legacy Awards.
“It seems like I was just out there on the field, and now I’m a legacy,” Joyner-Kersee said with a laugh. “(The award) speaks volumes because it’s not just about me, it’s about the people who helped me reach certain heights. My high school coach (Nino Fennoy), as well as my husband and coach (Bob Kersee), and family and friends, all played major roles. They made the difference in my life.”
Joyner-Kersee is never too far from the track, whether she’s working with the Railers, her track club in East St. Louis, Illinois; developing curriculum for her foundation’s “Winning in Life” program, which teaches youth how to translate success in sports to success in school and life; or mentoring current Olympians.
“It’s amazing to be able to be here to honor her,” said Olympic bronze medalist Kristi Castlin, who — along with Brianna Rollins (gold) and Nia Ali (silver) — was part of a Team USA sweep of the 100-meter hurdles this summer Rio. The three athletes presented Joyner-Kersee with her award on Thursday.
“Jackie does such great things, she’s definitely supported us along this journey of the sweep and all of the accomplishments in Rio,” Castlin said. “She’s really been giving me great advice for my career moving forward, in a competitive spirit and also a professional spirit.”
Mentoring younger Olympians, including long jumper Brittney Reese (2012 gold, 2016 silver) and, most famously, nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix, comes naturally to the warm and personable Joyner-Kersee.
“Allyson is an athlete who my husband has coached for many years, and she and I constantly have ongoing conversations,” she said. “She’s just a phenomenal person, so whatever I can pass on to her from my days of competing, just from the standpoint of helping her find that balance and doing what she needs to do, I’ve done. But there’s not much Allyson needed.”
When you talk to Joyner-Kersee, two words — “grass roots” — come up again and again. In April, the JJK East St. Louis Relays held its 24th annual track meet for girls, a two-day event featuring a motivational session with Joyner-Kersee as well as competition amongst some of the top track programs in the Midwest.
“I do my ‘Winning in Life’ program for over 1000 young girls, who come from all over the Midwest,” Joyner-Kersee said. “My heart is, has always been and will continue to be with the sport. Grass roots (programs) are so important, because that’s where our state, national and eventually Olympic hopefuls and Olympic champions come from.”
As for Fosbury, he’s been instrumental in the grass roots of his event practically since getting off of the plane from the 1968 Games in Mexico City, where his famous “Fosbury flop” won him the gold medal in the high jump.
“I’ve been doing clinics, thanks to my college coach, the late Berny Wagner, since I came back from Mexico,” Fosbury said. “Everyone wanted to learn the Fosbury flop.”
“Early on, we were teaching the coaches,” he continued. “Now, I mostly work with young athletes just coming up, who really need coaching because the high school coaches, with so many events, may not have the expertise in high jump as well as sprinting, hurdling, pole vault, all of those technical events.”
Today, almost all high jumpers use Fosbury’s back-first technique, which offers a lower center of mass in flight than leaping forwards over the bar. But the Portland, Oregon, native remembers developing the technique as “a move of desperation.”
“I was so tired of losing and I was really stuck at a level that I knew I could do better,” Fosbury said. “And so I began to change my body position, I found an easier way, and that was really the revolution in high school (Medford High School). The next two years was an evolution to perfect the style and technique and I got into college (Oregon State) I was serious about training and really improvement my strength to compete at the highest level.”
Fosbury, who serves on the executive board of the World Olympians Association, was riveted by the track and field performances in Rio.
“It’s wonderful to have so many athletes from Rio here tonight, and to be recognized by my peers and in my country,” he said. “We’ve had incredible performances all year. A lot of athletes that didn’t quire make it to Rio are looking forward to Tokyo and the (2017) world championships. I love being around all of these high-achieving heroes of our country.”
One of those Rio heroes, Matthew Centrowitz, received the Jesse Owens Award on Thursday. The 1,500-meter gold medalist was fresh off a vacation to Australia, where he celebrated his 27th birthday. From New York, he was headed to his hometown of Baltimore to be honored at an NFL Ravens’ game.
“I’m just super humble right now,” Centrowitz said. “Being mentioned amongst the Ashton Eatons, guys before me who are legends of the sport, it’s such an honor. It’s really neat to kind of mix it up now and have a middle distances runner on that list. There are a lot of sprinters on there.”
Centrowitz, who hadn’t yet finalized his upcoming indoor competition schedule, doesn’t think being the reigning Olympic champion will change his approach to training and competition.
“Definitely, there will be more expectations, and obviously there is going to be a lot more respect from some of the other countries now,” he said. “For me, it’s just kind of a validation of what my coaches, family and I believe I could accomplish. I’m not going to look at it any differently than I did before. I’m a guy out there looking to improve, putting in the hard work year in and year out.”