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Olympian spotlights kids' health issue

A young Jackie Joyner-Kersee had no idea why she was wheezing and out of breath while running.

While at UCLA, the rising Olympian was diagnosed with asthma. But had public school teachers in her day been in tune to health and safety issues, she may not have had to suffer so long."I live day to day being an asthmatic. I wish I knew when I was coming up what the symptoms were all about. It could have been diagnosed earlier," said Joyner-Kersee, who has won six Olympic medals including three gold in track-and-field events.

Joyner-Kersee was keynote speaker Thursday during opening ceremonies of the 1997 Utah Education Association Convention in Salt Lake City.

The two-day conference, "Health For Success," featured an array of workshops on topics from early childhood education to new teacher training, technology to AIDS prevention.

Gov. Mike Leavitt, who greeted the some 1,000 teachers gathered at opening ceremonies, said educational demands will be very different in the next century. At a Centennial Schools celebration earlier this week, he said he will introduce a new initiative, Schools of the 21st Century, later this year.

"It's a great time in our state. I look forward to moving ahead with you with 21st Century Schools," Leavitt said, adding time prevented him from further detailing plans for the initiative.

He challenged educators to help prepare students for new demands as the economy shifts from mass production to mass customization.

UEA president Phyllis Sorensen announced the inaugural Helen and Joe Buzas Excellence in Special Education Award presented to Sharon Kerikas, Granite School District teacher for the deaf and blind.

The Buzases, owners of the Salt Lake Buzz, also provided a $5,000 cash award, which will be presented annually. Kerikas teaches the Buzases' grandson. The award program was established under the Children At Risk Foundation, formed while Lily Eskelsen was UEA president.

Educators also honored Sharon Holmstrom, 1998 Utah Teacher of the Year. Holmstrom teaches English at Snowcrest Junior High in the Weber School District.

Joyner-Kersee, who holds the world and Olympic record in the heptathalon and the American record in the long jump, 50- and 60-meter hurdles, is also scheduled to open the premiere of the Utah Youth Alliance meeting at the conference Thursday.

The Olympian is deeply concerned about growing numbers of schoolchildren who are overweight and inactive and that schools across the country are scaling back on physical education programs.

"If they're not getting that exposure (to health and fitness) in school, they're probably not going to get it."

She urged parents to cut time spent in front of the TV.

"If you sit around a lot, you have a tendency to eat. You want to do something with your hands," she said.

Like the 475,000 students in Utah, Joyner-Kersee said she still considers herself a pupil.

"As an athlete, I'm always the student. I put myself in a position to learn."

While it's important to keep one's body fit, she urged educators to work on their souls.

"I can say we should be working on feeling good about what's on the inside. What's on the inside eventually shows on the outside."