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Up Close with Track and Field Champion Joetta Clark Diggs

If you had to pick one race Joetta Clark Diggs – an athlete who has participated in hundreds of meets across four decades in her illustrious career – ran that encapsulated the spirit and strength one of the most celebrated American athletes in track and field history, the women’s 800 meters final at the 2000 Olympic Trials is a good place to start.

Of course, it reinforces what people already know to be true about Clark Diggs: She is tenacious as well as fearless, and always gives her best.

By 2000, Clark Diggs had already made three Olympic teams (1988, 1992 and 1996) and had cemented her legacy as one of the greatest and most durable American middle distance runners of all time. However, circumstances beyond her control created her greatest athletic challenge.

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A Major Hurdle

In August 1998, a truck hit Clark Diggs’ car and the injuries stemming from the accident forced her to be bedridden for three months. She tore her obliques and suffered neck and back problems, which required months of rehab. Heading into the 2000 Olympic trials, she said she knew she “was the weakest link” between her sister, Hazel Clark, and sister-in-law, Jearl Miles Clark, who were also competing in the women’s 800 meters event.

“There were always challenges. Everyone will have challenges. It’s how you handle those challenges,” Clark Diggs said in a phone interview with Best of NJ. “It’s how you navigate through those challenges, which will ultimately determine your success.”

“I think the way I was raised taught me to be successful now,” she continued, “because when I hear ‘no’ or when things really aren’t going my way, I don’t fumble. I figure it out. Then I make things happen.”

Joetta Clark Diggs
J.J. Clark, Joetta Clark Diggs & Hazel Clark (from left to right)

Early Days

Clark Diggs was born in East Orange and raised in Newark until her family moved to South Orange following the 1967 riots. At the time, moving to a new neighborhood was not a simple task for a black family in New Jersey.

“I was in a time when racism was at its heights – you had the civil rights movement, but you couldn’t move to certain areas when we moved to the area. They wouldn’t show us houses in certain areas,” Clark Diggs said. “I dealt with that, but that was not used in our family as a deterrent, that gave us strength and motivated us to do better.”

Joetta Clark Diggs received her name from her parents combining their first names (Joe + Jetta = Joetta). Her father, Dr. Joe Clark – whom Morgan Freeman’s character in the film Lean on Me is based on – ran track and field as an undergraduate at William Patterson, and encouraged his children to run distance events.

“He was a distance runner himself and then he also wanted us to dispel the notion that black people, black Americans, couldn’t run [more than] 120 yards,” Clark Diggs said of her father.

Joetta Clark Diggs
Jearl Miles Clark, Joetta Clark Diggs & Hazel Clark (from left to right)

You Have to Dance Before You Can Run

As a child, she danced with the Alvin Ailey’s junior company until she was 14, when she decided she “liked track better than the dancing.” Clark Diggs believes that her dancing background and the flexibility from it helped her avoid injuries during her career as a runner.

After starring at Columbia High School, she attended the University of Tennessee, where she won nine collegiate titles, was a 15-time All-American and graduated with a degree in public relations. Her brother, J.J. Clark, an accomplished runner in his own right, began coaching Clark Diggs after she left Knoxville, an arrangement that worked out quite well.

“We’re really close. It’s good because he knows me,” Clark Diggs said of J.J. “He knows what makes me work and he’s a good coach. My brother is one of the best coaches in the world in the middle distances and has been for years. He’s a master coach. Coached many NCAA champions, SEC champions, Olympians…”

J.J. also coached both Hazel and his wife Jearl as well, which brings us back to the 2000 Olympic trials and the 800 meters finals, which featured Clark Diggs in lane two, her younger sister Hazel in lane three, and her sister-in-law Jearl in lane four. Miles Clark initially only ran the 400 meters (she won a silver medal with the 4 x 400 relay team in 1992 and a gold in the same relay event in 1996), but competed in both events in 2000.

The Amazing Race

After the race’s first 30 seconds, Clark Diggs sat at the back of the pack of runners and stayed there for about 45 seconds until she started her kick. As the runners hit the home straightaway, Clark Diggs had already passed four and sat in fourth place, but needed to pass one more to make the Olympic team. With every ounce of strength she could muster, Clark Diggs ran down Meredith Rainey-Valmon and passed her just as they hit the finish line. (Hazel and Jearl took the top two spots.)

Clark Diggs finished with a time of 1:59.49. Rainey-Valmon finished 1/100th of a second behind her at 1:59.50. J.J. Clark, who coached the three American women to qualify for the 800 meters in the Olympics, had made history with his sisters and wife.

When the 2000 Olympics drew to a close, Clark Diggs knew her competitive athletic career was over. “It was easy to walk away. They wanted me to stay around and do a Clark goodbye tour,” she said. “My time had come. I didn’t want to train anymore, I didn’t want to rehab anymore. I already made four Olympic teams. And I was already one of the best Americans ever.”

Clark Diggs had already been contemplating her post-athletic career, and started transitioning to public speaking. Shortly after, the Joetta Clark Diggs Sports Foundation was born. The foundation has been around for 15 years now and focuses on fitness, education and life skills, and includes several annual events that promote physical activities and academics.

“The time had come for me to move on and focus on making a difference in the lives of these kids through my foundation and things like that,” she said.

A Strong Speech

“The goal is to develop a mindset in these kids – urban, suburban, black, white, hispanic – it doesn’t matter what district; and it doesn’t matter what kids, because all of these kids have problems,” Clark Diggs explained. “And with our foundation and our programs, we address the healthy component and the fitness component, and we believe that if you have a strong body and a strong mind, [that] equals a strong future… So we go in and try and implement our various programs in the school districts; to try and help them to have strong bodies and strong minds and strong futures.”

Ronald, Talitha and Joetta

In 2013, Clark Diggs was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Additionally, she’s a member of the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame and the University of Tennessee Hall of Fame. She and her husband, Ronald Diggs, a businessman, have a daughter, Talitha, a budding star in track and field. In January, Talitha took first in the 200 meter dash (25.11 seconds) and long jump events (17’8”) for freshmen at the New Balance Games.

In 2009, Clark Diggs published a book, Joetta’s “P” Principles for Success: Life Lessons learned from Track & Field. Then in her NJHOF induction speech, she paid tribute to her home state:

“I look at all I did as an athlete, and it was preparing me for the world. And when I went abroad and people would say ‘where are you from?’ I would say ‘New Jersey.’ And they would go, ‘you have an attitude. What is this New Jersey attitude?’ I said ‘No. We don’t have an attitude. We believe in ourselves. We’re resilient.’”

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