Clark sisters running their father's legacy

Hazel Clark, along with her sisters Joetta Clark-Diggs and Jearl Miles-Clark, won their heats in the women's 800 on their first day of track and field in Sydney  Credit: Andy Lyons/Allsport
Three of the most remarkable athletes representing the United States at the 2000 Olympics will be sisters Hazel and Joetta Clark and their sister-in-law Jearl Miles-Clark.

The three women ages 22, 37 and 33 will all run the 800 meters, and Jearl's husband, J.J., brother of Joetta and Hazel, is their coach.

As family affairs go, it is unique. For the first time, an entire U.S. team for one event will come from the same family.

"It has never happened before," says Joe Clark, father of Hazel, Joetta and J.J., who himself became famous in the 1980s as the tough principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J.

Clark's exploits in turning around troubled Eastside High were made into the film Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman. Clark says those days, when he held drug dealers at bay with a Louisville Slugger, were thrilling, but nothing compared with the joy of watching his Olympic trio qualify six weeks ago.

"It was the kind of dream no father really dares to have," says Clark, sitting behind his big desk at the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center, where he has been director since 1990. "Joetta was in a photo finish for third place, which made it unbelievably tense."

The dominating presence of the Clark girls in U.S. middle-distance running is extraordinary and owes much to their inspirational father.

"Dad is about as tough as a father can be," Joetta says. "I am so grateful for that, even though many of the things he made us do are controversial."

She has that right. Joe Clark set astonishingly high standards for his children, and fought all attempts to stereotype them. All three were good sprinters, but Joe made an early decision they would not be allowed down the road taken by so many black runners.

"I preferred that they run for distance, because African-Americans have been stereotyped for so many years," Clark says. "We're only supposed to be sprinters. We're not supposed to have the discipline and the determination to succeed. I thought the longer races provided structure and a much harder mountain to climb."

Structure is what "Iron" Joe Clark is all about, combined with a tough discipline he imposes to this day, even though the three women live and train in Florida.

When they were children, he knew the biggest obstacle to his daughters becoming middle-distance champions was their thresholds for pain. He would put them through their paces at dawn sessions, driving them to the point of tears and beyond.

"I would tell them the pain was necessary," he recalls. "Otherwise, their victories would have no inner value. And I insisted they study just as hard. For my children, it was college or death."

On a recent morning at 7 a.m., I watched as Clark called his youngest daughter, Hazel, who was still sleeping.

"This is your father," he barked.

On the speaker phone, Hazel sounded instantly as if she had leapt out of bed and was standing at attention. Clark then discussed Hazel's training schedule for the next few days before signing off with some advice.

"Keep yourself focused," he told America's 800-meter champion. "The ultimate prize is to be a superb member of the Olympic team."

Notice, Clark did not say the ultimate was the gold medal. According to Hazel, he never would.

"Dad is about making a difference, setting an example," she says. "He cares less about us winning gold than what we do with it afterward to inspire other members of the community."

Hazel says she has found some of her father's attitudes tough to cope with. There have been plenty of times she wanted to party instead of train. Yet there is something about her dad's attitudes that, in the end, she would find irresistible.

"He makes you want to be a better person," she sighs. "I know he loves me so much, he cannot bear for me to fail, and that is an extraordinary force to have in my life."

Joe Clark, the embodiment of that force, is one of the most conservative blacks in America. If his girls do well in the Olympics, Clark will get a much bigger platform for his views, some of which may be hard to swallow for many in the African-American establishment.

For instance, Joe Clark has never blamed the problems of his community on racism. His analysis is much closer to home.

"The young men in this detention center are here largely because parents, especially fathers, do not assume their moral responsibilities," he thunders.

"Unfortunately, that has been particularly true in the black community. Anyone who does not provide for the children they brought into the world should be horsewhipped and run out of town."

Lest anyone think Clark is speaking in metaphors, he is happy to prove the contrary.

"Jail is too good for such people," he says. "They should be pinioned and mocked by their neighbors."

Eldest daughter Joetta refuses to discuss her father's politics, but says the strength of his opinions have been an inspiration.

She was badly injured in an auto accident last year on the New Jersey Turnpike, which could have kept her from attending her fourth Olympics. Sydney will be her last, she says. She plans to retire from competition and work full-time as a motivational speaker.

Joetta says her recovery owed much to her father's insistence she not let the accident destroy her dreams.

"The 800 is such a sadistic race, because it is both a sprint and a distance event," she says. "When I was hurt last year, I thought about what he would do. I realized instantly he would never give up. I knew then I had to do this for him."

Of the three girls, Hazel is probably the one most like Joe Clark. She resisted his ambitions the longest, trying to be a figure skater and a dancer before a bad fall made her realize the track, not the ice, was where her talent could prosper.

"It's funny that I ended up running track anyway," says Hazel. "But that's what happens with my dad he usually gets what he wants."

Joetta was seventh in the 800 in both the 1992 Olympics and 1997 World Championships. She was ranked No. 4 in the world last year.

Miles-Clark was an Olympic relay gold medalist in 1996 and 400-meter world champion in 1993. She moved up to the 800 in 1997, broke Mary Slaney's 12-year-old U.S. record, and now is ranked No. 3 in the world.

Yet, both women believe it is Hazel who will one day dominate the 800.

"Hazel is the real deal, untapped potential," Joetta says. "She will take the 800 to the level I have not been able to go."

Joetta attributes the bond between the sisters to her father, who taught them that life is not something to be slept through, that chances must be taken and talents must be used to make the world a better place.

"We are educated, we are smart, we are good people," Joetta says. "If you live right, good things happen to you."

Although not necessarily as good as an Olympic gold medal. That requires something a bit more, the kind of true grit the Clark women get from Iron Joe.

"He was ubiquitous, omnipresent in our lives," Hazel says. "We could have found it suffocating. I think we didn't because it was done with such love."

Joetta and Hazel have visited the Newark detention center. Joe insisted the two athletes try to inspire the inmates. Seeing him at work, they must have realized that the father who pushed them all the way to the Olympics is a man apart.

When he began the job in 1991, he threw out most of the existing staff, saying the jail was "drowning in decadence."

"He got criticized by a lot of prominent people," Hazel says. "The liberals hated him, but there are thousands who support him. Dad is right when he says the African-American community is actually quite conservative. He has far more supporters than you might imagine."

And many of those stand by Clark even when he advocates keeping repeat juvenile offenders those with two or more convictions in jail until they are 21.

"I took myself and my children out of poverty," he says. "I made my children take themselves out of Newark. To get better, we have to move on. It's absurd to send young offenders back into the same environment. It perpetuates recidivism."

Nobody will see Joe Clark screaming at the Olympics. Most likely, he'll sit unobtrusively in distant parts of the stadium, far from the TV cameras.

Yet, he's hoping his family's achievements will be recognized for what they are an example that tough discipline works and that fame is nothing if it is not used to make the world a better place.

"Dad says he will be thrilled if we win, but that's just the start," Hazel says. "He tells me he will really break out the fireworks if I show him somebody who got out of poverty or despair because of the example we have set for the African-American community."

Not that any of his aspirations for a better society spares Clark from pondering the question of whom he would most like to win.

"To make a choice between them would be setting myself up for a rendezvous with oblivion," he says, smiling. "My greatest joy is that all three are going to Sydney. Everything else is icing on the cake."

Not to mention an opportunity for a man who was Ronald Reagan's favorite educator to prove, once again, that discipline may hurt, but it also wins prizes.

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