Inside an opulent ballroom at National Harbor, a setting usually occupied by people wearing business suits, it was a day when women in uniform were in charge.
The event Monday was the silver anniversary of the Joint Women’s Leadership Symposium, and, for the first time in 25 years, all five branches of the military were present.
The guest speakers included admirals and generals, and an advisor to President Obama. But no one was more inspirational than four-time Olympic track and field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
In a speech that was humorous and stirring, she brought the officers and soldiers to their feet more than once as she spoke of doubts, of challenges and of struggles, and her search for a pain that wasn’t there.
“I set my sights on making an Olympic team, not realizing how tough it was going to be,” Joyner-Kersee said, describing in amusing detail the path to her first Olympic Games in 1984.
“About six weeks before the ‘84 games, I pulled my left hamstring. I wasn’t used to my leg not doing what I wanted it to do.”
During the Games, with her leg heavily taped, she competed with a tentative posture as she waited for her leg to give out, for the pain she expected to come. It never did. As she walked away with a silver medal in the heptathlon, she realized that expecting to lose had cost her the gold.
“The pain that I imagined, it wasn’t there,” Joyner-Kersee said. “It was all in my mind. I wasn’t thinking like a champion. I stepped in the starting blocks with a timid attitude.”
At her post-event press conference, she decided that her injury would not be an excuse.
“If I’m blessed to make another Olympic team,” she decided then, “I know that I have to be the toughest one out there mentally. Physically, I know I have a gift; but mentally, I wasn’t prepared to take on the challenge that was in front of me.”
It was an experience that changed her life and set the tone for her success.
“I didn’t want it bad enough,” Joyner-Kersee said. “I had to change my behavior and change my attitude.”
“I told myself that if this is what I want, then I have to be willing - I don’t care what competition it is - I have to be willing to pull every muscle in my body to get the job done. That became my attitude.”
Joyner-Kersee went on to win six Olympic medals - three golds, one silver and two bronze. Along with a silver in the heptathlon in ‘84, she won golds in the heptathlon and the long jump in ‘88, a gold in the heptathlon and a bronze in the long jump in ‘92 and a bronze in the long jump in 1996.
In 1999, Sports Illustrated for Women named her the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.