Olympic gold medalist, philanthropist shares story

Jonathan Ferris
Staff writer

Joanna Hayes met with students on campus during a reception Wednesday afternoon. || Photo by Ben McGrath/The News

It’s not often Murray State hosts an Olympic record holder and gold medalist. Students and faculty gathered Wednesday night at Wrather Auditorium to listen to Olympic hurdler Joanna Hayes at the annual youth and nonprofit leadership department’s Giving Back Scholars Event.

Hayes founded and runs the Joanna Hayes Foundation, which works to encourage and engage children by getting them involved in developmental, community and sports activities.

After having missed the cut for the 2000 Olympic National team by one spot, Hayes returned to St. Louis, Mo., where she trained and worked with the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center, playing with children for an entire summer.

That was the summer, Hayes said, that helped her decide to train and make another run at the Olympics in 2004.

“After missing the cut in 1999 I decided I would just move on and not care,” Hayes said. “But after working with the kids and preaching the message of never give up on your dreams, I decided I would give it my all and try one more time to either make the Olympics or move on with my life.”

Hayes indeed made the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, traveling to Athens, Greece, for the games. There she would not only accomplish her lifelong dream of winning the gold medal, but set an Olympic record that still stands for the 100-meter hurdle.

However, Hayes did not come to Murray to discuss her Olympic accomplishments.

The keynote speaker in the Scholars Give Back Event, Hayes discussed her childhood and how she came to find her passion to serve despite her athletic fame.

Hayes discussed her father, who moved his family to California and voluntarily moved in with the homeless population of Los Angeles to work to improve their living conditions.

Her summer with the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center in St. Louis not only encouraged her to get back on the track, but she also said she fell in love with the children. This, she said, was where she found her passion to help children in challenging situations.

She returned to her alma mater high school in Riverside, Calif., and she started a program for girls titled “10 hurdles for success” where she works with groups of 40 girls after school for 12 weeks, discussing potential hurdles in life such as self-image, forming healthy relationships, and overcoming traumatic family and emotional experiences.

“After 34 years, I have discovered that my purpose here on earth is to be my daughter’s mother and to help those in tougher less fortunate situations,” Hayes said.

As the event wound down, Hayes presented several foundations, such as the Calloway County Red Cross and the Boys & Girls Club, with awards for their service in the community.

Hayes encouraged all students to pursue their dreams for helping people in the future.

“It’s not about doing what’s cool or hip,” Hayes said. “So remember what you want to do and what you’re passionate about because those are going to be the things you give 100 percent to.”

Hayes currently coaches track and field in her home of Los Angeles and regularly travels promoting her foundation and encouraging youth to take up careers in helping people.