Letter to My Younger Self

Dear Jackie,

You’re nine years old, growing up in East St. Louis, and have a deep passion for athletics. You idolize figures like Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who paved the way and inspired other young girls like you to compete in athletics. You love playing basketball and volleyball but track — the sport that will define your career — is something you view as a challenge.

Set goals for yourself, prepare for them and attain them. This simple but extremely grueling formula will one day lead you to become a three-time Olympic gold medalist and to be named the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated. It will all come at a price, but we’ll get to that later.

While watching the 1976 Olympics Games in Montreal, you’ll begin believing that you can one day represent your country and compete amongst the world’s best. But there will be both physical and mental obstacles to overcome before you ever reach the podium.

One of them will be your lifelong battle with asthma. Asthma is no minor ailment. Do everything you can to find out why you’re having trouble breathing in competitions. It’s not because you’re out of shape. You work too hard for that. Address this medical condition early on. As obvious as it sounds, breathing is important. Do not hide your condition. I know you’re fearful that it will possibly cause you to lose your scholarship, but it will not. The toll that asthma takes on your body is not only physical but emotional and mental as well. The difficult times with this disease will play a crucial role in your development as a professional athlete.

The 1980 Olympic trials and 1984 Olympic Games will both be significant lessons. In 1980, you’ll compete in the Olympic trials but will not make the team. It takes more than just physical capability to make it to the world’s stage. In 1984, you’ll make the team but will be plagued by hamstring injuries. This may sound odd now, but physical injuries are not what will hold you back. It will be the mental strain of knowing those injuries exist.

Yes, your leg will be black and blue, and the torn muscle will bring pain unlike anything you’ve ever felt before. Yes, you’ve never been seriously injured before. However, it will be essential that you listen to your physical therapist when they tell you that you’ll be OK. The only thing that will hold you back is a lack of mental toughness at the time. However, despite these challenges, you’ll still take home a silver medal in the heptathlon competition. Reaching the Olympic podium for the first time and seeing your brother, Al, take gold in the triple jump will ignite a fire within that will burn over the next three Olympic games.

Your experience in ’84 will help you become a much better athlete. There will be no complacency in the four years between the ’84 and ’88 games. You’ll say to yourself, “If I’m blessed, God will help me make another team.” Don’t hold anything back. You’ll pull everything out of you body to get the job done. Yes, you’ll pay a heavy physical price for it, but it will be worth it in the end.

Heading into the ’88 Games, you’ll really begin hitting your stride. The year before you’ll win a gold medal in both the long jump and heptathlon in the World Championships. They say your first taste of gold on the world’s stage is the sweetest, but there’s more where that came from.

At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, you’ll be more ready than ever. You’ll be at your peak as an athlete. Your goal will be to not only take home gold but to break your own world record. Through hard work and the guidance of your coach and husband Bob, it will all be possible. During the 800m, you’ll finish five seconds inside the time needed for a new heptathlon record of 7,291 points — a record that still stands today. This is the moment where you’ll make your stamp as one of the greatest athletes of your generation. None of this would be possible without the help of your team. By “team” I mean coaches, trainers, family members and friends back home. They all helped shape the athlete and person you’ve become.

You’ll realize this and immediately think back to home. Your home town of East St. Louis means so much to you, and the joy you have representing your country on the podium for the heptathlon and long jump in Seoul will be one of your proudest moments.

However, your accomplishments will be briefly overshadowed by the Ben Johnson doping scandal. It is a letdown. You worked so hard — in an honest way — to get there, but unfortunately the biggest headlines from those games will focus on the controversy around the 100m men’s competition.

It’s frustrating, but don’t let that take away from your shine. You’ll be back on this stage again in four years, and another four years after that. When it’s all said and done, you’ll have amassed six Olympic medals, including three golds. You’ll rack up four World Championship gold medals. Your hard work will pay off, and once you retire you’ll be able to realize that all the hard work was worth it. The decades of pushing your body to its physical limits will take a toll on you, though.

You’ll become familiar with the feeling of constant pain. From the moment you put your feet on the floor to the moment you go to bed, pain throughout your body — especially your legs — will be something you cannot escape. It’s not a silent pain, either. The crunching heard in your joints is not normal.

Your career as a world-class athlete has taken a toll on your body. Over the years, your doctor will prescribe prescription opioid medication to help you cope with the pain. However, it does come with side effects. The one you’ll become most affected by is Opioid Induced Constipation (OIC). You’re not alone in your pain; you learn that OIC is one of the common side effects of opioid use.

Let’s be honest, talking about something that personal with your physician is not something many people are comfortable with. However, it’s necessary to spread awareness so that this problem is addressed. You’ll use your voice to bring comfort to other suffering from this same ailment and point them to resources such as OhISee.com, where they can share their stories as you’ve bravely done so.

Outside of your work with OIC awareness, you’ll continue to be a voice for St. Louis and women’s athletics. You reached your goals because athletes like Wilma Rudolph, Evelyn Ashford and Babe Zaharias paved the way.

Yes, in 2015, you’ll see more women’s sports on television than ever before. But more needs to be done. The progress of women’s athletics rests not only on the shoulders of high-profile athletes like Serena Williams and even up-and-comer Mo’ne Davis, but also people in leadership positions at the grassroots levels. Funding for local sports, scholarships and grants are essential in the progress of women’s athletics. Continue to use your voice and platform to aid these efforts.

Preparation is something that will define both your career and life. You know that no one could outwork you. It’s better to look ahead and prepare than to look back and regret. Live by this simple mantra, and you’ll achieve all of your goals and so much more.

Your proud older self,