URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — Six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee will serve as the commencement speaker at this year’s University of Illinois commencement, the university announced on Tuesday.
“We always want our students’ last formal experience at Illinois to feature a speaker who not only helps them to fully embrace the joy of the moment, but also inspires them to make a difference in their future lives and careers,” said Chancellor Robert Jones. “I can think of no one with a life story that better embodies those ideals than our 2023 speaker, Jackie Joyner-Kersee.”
Joyner-Kersee, a native of East St. Louis and a graduate of UCLA, competed in four Olympic games – 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996 – winning three gold medals, one silver and two bronze in track and field. She is the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic golds in the heptathlon (1988 and 1992) and the first woman to score 7,000 in a heptathlon event, a record that still stands today. She is also the first African American woman to win an Olympic medal in the long jump (gold in 1988).
In addition, ESPN named her one of the 50 greatest athletes of all time and she was named Female Athlete of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated.
After her Olympic success, Joyner-Kersee established a foundation that supports youth and families in her hometown and across the U.S. Her foundation later partnered with the University of Illinois in 2019, working with the College of ACES and onsite U of I Extension staff to provide youth with programming and engagement around metropolitan food systems, agriculture, STEM, entrepreneurship, leadership and college readiness.
Joyner-Kersee said this connection makes it especially meaningful to speak at commencement.
“It’s always an honor when the request comes. But having a relationship with the university and Chancellor Jones made it even more special,” Joyner-Kersee said. “I’m always looking for ways to give my time to help others through their own dreams and aspirations to be the best in whatever field they choose.”
Joyner-Kersee said her commencement address will focus on the importance of believing in yourself.
“You can turn a doubter into a believer as long as you believe,” she said. “But that belief must start with you. Always be willing to put in the work. The job is never done, no matter how successful others say that you are. Always have the hunger. Always be willing and open to challenge yourself. Know that there is only one you. That one you is unique. Allow yourself to spread that uniqueness while helping and supporting others.”
Commencement will take place Saturday, May 13, 2023, in Memorial Stadium.