Medallist Bruce Jenner interviewed by Chet Cooper
At forty-something, Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic Gold
Medal Decathlon champion still has the right stuff. Tall, fit, handsome,
with boyish charm and exuberant energy, Bruce Jenner is a generous spirit.
He is eager to share his story of becoming a champion in the face of obstacles,
and earning continuing success in so many areas of his life, including
his multimillion dollar business ventures, and the relationships he holds
so dear - his marriage to wife Kris and his 10 children. ABILITY's Chet
Cooper met with Bruce Jenner one morning at the Jenner home in Hidden
Hills, California. The sunlit sitting room where the interview was held
only accentuated Jenner's warmth, optimism, humor, and gracious down-to-earth
manner. As he recounts the days of his pre-Olympic training, Olympic victory
in 1976, and the challenges of a career and life post-athlete, one is
struck by the timeless vitality of Jenner's enthusiasm. Surely, in the
presence of Jenner, one feels the potent energy of a true Olympian...still.
Today, it is hard to imagine Jenner anywhere but at the top of the hurdle,
but Jenner describes his beginnings as absolutely ordinary. Jenner was
the second of four children with two sisters and a brother. His Mother,
Esther Jenner, was an "all-American mom and housewife." His Father, Bill
Jenner, having served in World War II became a Tree Surgeon. The family
grew up in middle class areas of the suburbs of New York and of Connecticut.
The family moved frequently, about every five years.
Jenner's roots did evidence athletic ability. Jenner's Father
Bill competed in the U.S. Army Olympics in Nuremberg, Germany in 1945,
winning a silver medal in the 100-yard dash. Jenner's grandfather had
run in the Boston Marathon for many years. Of his own perhaps budding
athletic abilities, Jenner said: "By the time I turned two, I'd already
developed a big chest, wide shoulders and boundless energy, prompting
my dad to nickname me Bruiser. Trying to curb my wanderlust, my parents
fenced in their yard..." Bruce Jenner, Finding the Champion Within.
However, Jenner had a significant childhood struggle to overcome. He was
dyslexic. As is common for school-age dyslexic children, Jenner feared
school, teachers, and reading. His behavior in the classroom was mislabeled
by teachers and he would often daydream in class. Jenner described the
school experience from Kindergarten through 6th grade as torturous. When
glasses were suggested, Jenner's eyesight was tested at 20/20. Finally
a school doctor recognized that he was dyslexic.
Today, dyslexia is a condition doctors, teachers, parents, and the public
at large know more about. However, Jenner cautions that dyslexia is still
misunderstood. Most dyslexics are intelligent, creative people who have
what he describes as a "short circuit" in processing reading, writing,
spelling, and expression. Jenner describes a common misunderstanding that
dyslexics see backwards, and says that is not so. The International Dyslexia
Association describes what occurs in dyslexia:"Dyslexia results from a
difference in the structure and function of the brain...problems in language
processing distinguish them as a group. That means that the dyslexic has
problems translating language to thought (as in listening or reading)
or thought to language (as in writing or speaking)." [The International
Dyslexia Association, International Office, 8600 LaSalle Road, Chester
Building, Suite 382, Baltimore, MD 21286-2044 USA; (410) 296-0232]. Today,
the National Institute of Health estimates that about 15% of the population
has a learning disability. Dyslexia, one learning disability, occurs among
all people regardless of age, race, or income. It can run in families.
Despite advances in the understanding of dyslexia, some children still
"fall through the cracks" as they are never properly diagnosed or treated.
Young children with dyslexia have special needs in the classroom as they
learn differently from their peers. The International Dyslexia Association
recommends early intervention by a specially trained teacher or therapist.
The Learning Disabilities Association of California advocates a multisensory
approach to learning for children with a learning disability. [The Learning
Disabilities Association of California, 655 Lewelling Blvd., #355, San
Leandro, CA 94579; (916) 725-7881. Also for more information see: Basic
Facts About Dyslexia: What Everyone Ought to Know by Angela Wilkins, Alice
Garside, and Mary Lee Enfield, Ph.D., available through the International
Dyslexia Association, above].
Bruce Jenner was lucky. The educational system finally recognized his
dyslexia. However, school became tolerable for him only when his natural
athletic ability was clearly demonstrated before his teacher and peers.
It was then that the accolades that always seemed to go out to the other
kids were now being handed to Jenner. The reward for Jenner was greater
self- esteem. Today, he attributes his success to the hard work and determination
he learned as a small child with dyslexia who worried about being able
to do anything right. As a dyslexic who has excelled, Jenner is in good
company. Well-known dyslexics include Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison,
Tom Cruise and Cher.
A list of Jenner's accomplishments to date even after the 1976 Olympics
is long. The areas of his achievements are varied and business based.
From being featured on the front of Wheaties cereal boxes to sports commentating,
acting, and working as a television personality ("Good Morning America,"
"Murder She Wrote," "CHiP's," "Healthy Lifestyles"), Jenner has gone on
to running his own film production company. Jenner's entrepreneurial ventures
include organizing and delivering motivational speeches to corporate groups.
He is sought after by such corporations as Coca Cola, VISA, Anheuser Busch,
MCI, Toyota, Kawaski, Holiday Inn, and IBM. The current businesses Jenner
has a hand in are diverse, from telecommunications to health food, to
everything in-between. While Jenner's speed throttle has been on full
and moving forward in the business world, Jenner has found time to lend
a hand in charitable and nonprofit organizations as the Special Olympics,
the President's Council on Physical Fitness and the California Governor's
Council of Physical Fitness.
Jenner is active in dyslexia foundations and shares concern for children
who grow up with dyslexia. And, (try to fit this into your schedule) Jenner,
a devoted husband and father (did we mention the Father of the Year award?),
also has time to write books. His latest book, Finding the Champion Within
(Simon & Schuster, 1996) is an invigorating summoning and directing of
the forces within all of us to be champions, no matter what the playing
field. Jenner takes the reader step by step through his decathlon training
leading to his victorious Olympic gold medal in 1976...the decathlon victory
being a larger metaphor for all our dreams and goals in life. Jenner offers
his own tried and true methods to buckle down and make what matters most
in one's life come to fruition. The advice is solid and clear and the
book is laced with hundreds of quotes and stores both biographical and
anecdotal, which will make the reader want to jump out the starting blocks
with a winner's determination.
History books will write of Jenner as a great athlete, but we need also
remember a great man with such warmth and good energy to share. Yet our
hero remains humble. When asked how he would like to be remembered, Jenner
states he would like to be remembered as a good parent. Meeting Bruce
Jenner was a pleasure. In the wake of Jenner's presence, one may find
inspiration nudging, beckoning him to reach for his highest dreams, and
seize the day with vigor! But the pace Jenner keeps is hard to follow.
As Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times observed, "His battle cry once
was "Go Bruce, Go! Obviously, nobody told him to slow down." ("Can't Stop
The Music", Los Angeles Times, 7 July 1996, Sports, Part C, p. 1.)
CC: Wow! These are great pictures. [Viewing pictures on wall of
Bruce with various celebrities and on several covers of magazines.] You're
very accomplished and you having a learning disability.
BJ: I know I've been very fortunate. (laughs)
CC: When did you find out you had dyslexia?
BJ: I was growing up in the 50's and 60's. Back then they didn't
even know what dyslexia was. I probably went all the way to junior high
school before a school doctor told me that I was "dyslexic." My reaction
was, do you mean I'm going to die from this? Was I a bad boy? He said,
no you'll be fine, go back to class. That was about the extent of it.
CC: What was it like as a child with dyslexia?
BJ: It caused more problems as a young kid, because the simple
process of perceiving words on a piece of paper was hard for me. Many
people think dyslexic people see things backwards. They don't see things
CC: Yes, I've heard that before.
BJ: If you are dyslexic, your eyes work fine, your brain works
fine, but there is a little short circuit in the wire that goes between
the eye and the brain. Reading is not a fluid process. What happens is
that you will start reading across a piece of paper and you can make out
the first couple of words. The eye is working, the brain is working, but
somewhere along the line that system breaks down some, so as you are reading
along there will come a word that doesn't come up off the piece of paper
and register like it should, but you are forced to read on. So you go
to the next word, because your eye is continuing to move. When the time
comes for your brain to process the information, the second word comes
up faster than the first one. So when it's in your head, all of a sudden,
it comes out backwards and you think of the word backwards. The truth
is everybody does it from time to time. People dial telephone numbers
and they get a wrong number only to find that they've read the last two
digits backwards. Everybody does it, but dyslexics have this tendency
to a higher degree. Dyslexia also varies in how severe it is. Some dyslexics
make fewer mistakes. There are some dyslexics though that are at the point
where they cannot even read words as they are driving down the highway.
Dyslexia can get that bad. Mine isn't that bad, but it can be that bad.
It can be a very big problem.
CC: What kind of problems did you have?
BJ: The biggest problem with dyslexic kids is not the perceptual
problem, it is their perception of themselves. That was my biggest problem.
I thought everybody else was doing much better than I was. I'd look around
to my peers, and everyone else could do this simple process of reading,
but for me it wasn't working. If you are a kid, reading is really important
stuff. My biggest fear was going to school. I was afraid the teacher was
going to make me read in front of class, and I was going to look bad.
I didn't only have a perceptual problem, I was also so nervous and so
upset. The process just didn't work. I lost enthusiasm for school and
I flunked second grade. The teachers said I was lazy.
"In the fifth grade I discovered something I could
do better than the other kids. One day the teacher set me up a bunch of
chairs, and she had every one run to the chairs and back while she timed
us. I had the fastest time in the whole school!."
CC: You flunked the second grade? Wow that's rough. Did things
turn around for you?
BJ: In the fifth grade I discovered something I could do better
than the other kids. One day the teacher set up a bunch of chairs, and
she had everyone run to the chairs and back while she timed us. I had
the fastest time in the whole school! That was the first time I had ever
really accomplished anything in school. Everyone was patting me on the
back saying, good job Bruce! I liked the pat on the back. So all of a
sudden sports became very intriguing to me. It became important especially
later on when I was a little older. I would show up on the football field
and challenge a guy who was a good student, good reader, and BOOM! I'd
clean his clock! I said, boy, I like this, this is fun! I could do it
better than most of the other kids in school. So for me sports became
my little niche in life.
CC: That was your hidden talent.
CONTINUED IN ABILITY MAGAZINE...... subscribe