CHAMPAIGN — When 30-year runner Susan Mazzeo found out that the keynote speaker at her son’s graduation ceremony from the University of Illinois would be one of her athletic idols, her brain went into high gear.
“What if I storm the stage?” she giggled, contemplating the best way to meet Jackie Joyner-Kersee up close.
The 56-year-old Fair Haven, N.J., woman had kept newspaper stories and magazine articles about Joyner-Kersee, who competed in track and field in the 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympics, for their inspirational value in her own running career.
She was hoping that Joyner-Kersee, who Sports Illustrated named the top female athlete of the 20th century, would autograph a 1996 article from the Asbury Park, N.J. newspaper about her difficulties with an injury at the ’96 Atlanta Summer Games.
“The story was about how she had to pull out of the heptathlon (due to a hamstring injury) ... but was able to compete in the long jump,” Mazzeo recalled.
“She made it the last day on her last jump to qualify. She said to herself, ‘Pull it together.’ That really resonated with me,” said Mazzeo, who was struggling around that same time to qualify to run in the Boston Marathon. “It took me seven tries.”
Deciding a “more civilized approach” to meeting her idol might work better, Mazzeo wrote to Joyner-Kersee’s foundation, then was directed to Laura Wilhelm-Barr of the UI’s communications office, who made the meeting between the women happen.
“That speaks to the kindness of the university and the length they will go to for their students and their parents,” Mazzeo said.
During the brief meeting, Mazzeo said she told Joyner-Kersee how her 1996 challenge had inspired her during her running career, which went on to include a 2017 ultra-marathon of about 56 miles in South Africa.
Mazzeo sweetened the meeting by giving her idol a box of New Jersey-made taffy from the seashore.
Mazzeo, a social worker now studying for her doctorate, continues to train three mornings a week with a group of women about her same age.
For the record, the giddy Mazzeo was almost as ecstatic Saturday about the reason that she, husband George, daughter Christina, sister Christina Barrett, parents Doris and Frank DiPadova, and best friends Qing and Don Meyerson traveled by car and air from New Jersey, Florida and even as far as Shanghai, China, to be in Champaign for the weekend.
Arthur Mazzeo, 21, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, having studied nuclear plasma radioactive engineering — “an amazing program,” according to mom.
“So, we were referring to it as JJK Day, also known as Arthur’s graduation,” she said, adding that up until very recently, her son was not familiar with the iconic Joyner-Kersee. He is now.
“He was a good sport about it,” said the mother, who planned to dedicate the rest of her day to his success.