Jackie Joyner-Kersee could hold it back for only so long.

She made it through the final long jump and through the end of her last competition.Then the tears fell - just like the many records whenever she competed during a remarkable 18-year career.

The world's greatest female athlete had finally stopped running and jumping.

At a meet billed as "Track and Field's Farewell to Jackie Joyner-Kersee," she took one last victory lap Saturday night, carrying an Olympic torch and accompanied by a group of youngsters from her hometown just 20 miles away.

"I didn't want it to end," she said, her voice choking. "But I told myself, `Jackie, you can't go on forever.' I knew the day would come. I hate that I have to leave. I have no regrets.

"To me, it was special that it ended like this. It made me feel I've been blessed," she said. "I'm happy also because a lot of my friends and family were here to see me compete."

A crowd of 9,100 nearly filled 10,000-seat Ralph Korte Stadium at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville for the U.S. Open, including about 3,000 youngsters from poverty-stricken East St. Louis, where Joyner-Kersee was born

Appropriately, she wore uniform No. 1.

There was no Hollywood-style ending, however. She finished sixth in the long jump, but none of her fans seemed disappointed.

"It's almost like an extended family," said the 36-year-old Joyner-Kersee. "It's always a lift when people are willing to give it their time. Even as I was struggling, I felt they didn't care what the (result) was.

"The kids were yelling, `We love you, Jackie.' That's something. They don't even know who I am."

They knew.

To many, Joyner-Kersee is their hero, a role model.

She is building the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Foundation, a facility to provide hope and a haven to 14,000 youngsters in East St. Louis and surrounding communities.

"I want to give back to my hometown ... the kinds of opportunities afforded me as a youngster," she said.

As the meet began and Joyner-Kersee appeared on the field to warm up, she waved to the crowd and the fans responded with banners, signs and placards. One read, "Thanks For the Memories." Another said, "JJK - We Love You."

The warmth and affection enveloped the stadium.

Tamekia Howard of St. Louis, a 400- and 800-meter runner at Lincoln University, recalled meeting Joyner-Kersee at a high school meet.

"She was very inspiring," the 19-year-old said. "She told us to work hard, never give up, always strive for the best, and never let anything stop you in what you want to do."

Eileen O'Brien, 53, of St. Louis, was another spectator who wanted to be part of the historic event.

"I admire her because of all the work she's done in the community," O'Brien said. "She's the greatest athlete in the world. I wanted to see her last meet. I wanted to support her.

"She's wonderful ... down to earth. She has no airs about her."

After the meet she received the key to the city by East St. Louis Mayor Gordon Bush. She jogged her triumphant lap with the torch and surrounded by the Tigerettes track team from her high school, Lincoln High.

The song "When I think of Home" from "The Wiz" played, and the fans went home satisfied.

"I just wanted to walk away knowing I did my best," Joyner-Kersee said. "I've done this for so many years. I know I've done my best."

Joyner-Kersee's best often was better than anybody else's.

She won six Olympic medals, including golds in the heptathlon in 1988 and 1992 and the long jump in 1988. She won four world championship medals - all gold - in the heptathlon in 1987 and 1993 and in the long jump in 1987 and 1991.

She set the world record in the heptathlon four times between 1986 and 1988 and still owns the record with 7,291 points in the Seoul Olympics. She set the world record in the long jump in 1987 and still has the American record of 24-7, set twice in 1994.

She tied the American record in the 100-meter hurdles in 1988, and set the world indoor record in the 55-meter hurdles twice in 1989. She has the six highest heptathlon scores in history and is one of only two multi-event athletes to surpass 7,000 points.

Joyner-Kersee completed her spectacular heptathlon career Wednesday night, winning her fourth consecutive Goodwill Games gold medal with 6,502 points, the highest score in the world this year.

But those numbers don't tell the whole story of Joyner-Kersee.

There's her devotion to her struggling hometown. There's her generosity with her time and money. And there's respect from her peers.

"Now that she is leaving, people will start to realize what she has meant to the sport," hurdler Reggie Torian said.