Griffith-Joyner, Florence 1959–1998

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Florence Griffith-Joyner 19591998

Track and field athlete

Excelled in Track

A Rededication to Track

Olympic Darling

Life as a Celebrity


Possessing a combination of athletic talent and dramatic flair, Florence Griffith-Joyner, known to the world as Flo-Jo, was one of the brightest stars to shine over track and field. Her speed and determination earned her several Olympic medals, but her u-nique personality, which she expressed through her daring uniforms and trademark fingernails, won Griffith-Joyner the hearts of the world.

Florence Delorez Griffith was born on December 21, 1959 to Robert and Florence Griffith in Los Angeles, California. The Griffiths started out living near the Mojave Desert, but in 1964 Florence took her 11 children and left her husband, moving to a housing project in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Despite being a single mother in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country, Florence Griffith raised her children strictly. The Griffith children were not allowed to watch television during the week and they were all in bed by ten oclock whatever their age.

Florence, then known as Dee Dee, was already showing a flair for the dramatic that would make her an international superstar. As early as kindergarten, she styled her own hair, sometimes with a braid sticking straight up in the air. In high school she owned a pet boa constrictor. She also showed a talent in track and field at an early age. When she was seven, though she had been diagnosed with a heart murmur, she won her first race at an event sponsored by the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation.

Excelled in Track

Griffith-Joyner attended Jordan High School where she excelled at track and field. She set school records in the sprints and the long jump and attracted the attention of Bob Kersee, an assistant track coach at the University of California State at Northridge. Griffith-Joyner graduated from high school in 1978 and decided to attend Cal State Northridge. Though she did well on the track and inside the classroom, Griffith-Joyner had a difficult year financially. She even had to drop out for a short time because she ran out of money. However, Kersee helped her apply for financial aid and she was able to return to school.

In 1980 Kersee moved to the University of California at Los Angeles to coach track and Griffith-Joyner moved with him. She told Kenny Moore of Sports Illustrated why she made the move: I had a 3.25 GPA in business (at Cal State-Northridge), but UCLA didnt

At a Glance

Born Florence Delorez Griffith on December 21, 1959, in Los Angeles, CA; died September 21, 1998; daughter of Robert and Florence Griffith; married Al Joyner; children: Mary Ruth. Education: University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

Career: NCAA championship in the 200-meter dash, 1982; Los Angeles Summer Olympics, silver medal, 1984; Seoul, South Korea Summer Olympics, silver medal, three gold medals, 1988; Presidents Council on Physical Fitness, chair, 1997.

Awards: Set world record in the 100-and 200-meter dash; Sportswoman of the Year; Associated Press, Female Athlete of the Year; Sullivan Award; Jessie Owens Award, 1998; inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame, 1995.

even offer my major. I had to switch to psychology. But my running was starting up, and I knew that Bobby was the best coach for me. Soit kind of hurts to say thisI chose athletics over academics. She was good enough in track to be invited to the United States Olympic Trials in 1980 and almost made the team in the 200-meter race. At UCLA she continued to improve and even became a national champion. In her senior year she won the 1982 NCAA Championship in the 200-meters with a time of 22.39 seconds. She began to wear bright, full-length body suits and to grow her nails unusually long.

In 1984 she earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and then at the Los Angeles Olympics finished second in the 200-meter dash with a time of 22.04. Though she was proud to win an Olympic silver medal, she was disappointed not to have won the gold medal and she was left off the sprint relay teams because she would not cut her fingernails. After the Olympics, she cut down her training, got a full-time job, and gained 15 pounds. It seemed that her career as a sprinter was over.

Though it appeared that she was losing interest in track and field, those around her would not let her quit. She was dating Al Joyner, who had won the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in the triple jump. By 1986 she was back to training in earnest.

A Rededication to Track

The next year was pivotal for Griffith-Joyner. After placing second in the 200 meters at the World Championships in Rome, she realized she was very close to becoming one of the best sprinters in the world. She pushed herself even harder. She went into the weight room and developed her upper and lower body, while at the same time relaxing while she ran to allow her muscles to work better She also married Al Joyner who became her workout partner.

Her rededication on the track and new peace of mind off the track showed at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. In the first qualifying heat of the 100-meter dash, Griffith-Joyner clocked a world-record time of 10.60. Though the record did not count because of a strong tailwind, the incredible time, vividly painted nails, and the green one-legged body suit announced the arrival of a new kind of track and field athlete.

In the next qualifying heat with a new bodysuit and nails redone, Griffith-Joyner beat her previous time with a 10.49two world records in two hours. Officials checked the wind gciuge and found the instrument showed a reading of 0.0. The record would stand. The next day she proved her times were not just a result of favorable winds. She won the semifinal with a time of 10.70 and destroyed the best sprinters in the world with a time of 10.61 in the final. In two days, Griffith-Joyner had broken the world record in the womens 100-meter dash on four separate occasions. In the 200-meter Griffith-Joyner set a new U.S. record at 21.77 in the semi-fine Is and then won the finals with a time of 21.85. She also raced in an all-white body suit accented with lace, which she called, according to Sports Illustrated, ari athletic negligee.

Olympic Darling

All the stunning times at the trials and the daring outfits that accompanied her races brought massive attention by the media. By the time the 1988 Olympics began in Seoul, South Korea, she was known to the world as FloJo. Though Griffith-Joyner competed in regulation team uniforms, her times attracted all the attention she would need. In ths quarter-finals of the 100-meter she established a new Olympic record with a time of 10.62. In the 100-meter semi-final Griffith-Joyner would be faced with, her stiff est competition, East German Heike Drechsler. Despite a false start, which forced her to start slowly, Flo-Jo won the race and defeated her rival 10.70 to 10.97. In the 100-meter final Griffith-Joyner exploded out of the blocks to grab the lead and kept it throughout the race. Fifty meters from the end of the race she erupted into a wide smile. At 95 meters she raised her arms in the air and crossed the finish line with a wind-aided 10.54. She told Moore of Sports Illustrated about her feeling upon winning the gold medal: It was a 20-year dream. At that moment I knew everything was worth it. I felt so happy inside that I had it wen I just had to let it out.

But her Olympic triumphs were just beginning. She already held the world record and Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter dash, now she set her sights on the 200-meter. She glided through the qualifying rounds saving her best for the final heat. In the 200-meter final she established another world record at 21.34 to notch her second gold medal of the 1988 games. She then ran the third leg of the 4 x 100-meter relay and won a third gold medal. Sensing a hot hand, coaches put her on the anchor leg of the 4 x 400-meter relay team. The Soviet team, however, set a new world record, defeating the U.S. team, which was forced to settle for silver. Griffith-Joyners one silver and three gold medals made her perhaps the most recognized athlete on the planet. She was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, won the 1988 Sullivan Award, the Jessie Owens Award, and the Soviet news agency, TASS, named her Athlete of the Year.

Life as a Celebrity

After the Olympics, Griffith-Joyner became the most recognizable athlete in the world, but she shocked her fans by retiring abruptly after the games. After the stunning performance at the 1988 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, many people in the track world began whispering that Griffith-Joyner was using steroids. The sudden retirement made the rumors flare up again. But in 1988 alone she passed 11 drug tests.

After her retirement Griffith-Joyner entertained offers and endorsements from all over the world, especially Japan. She coached her husband and had a hand in several projects, most notably fashion design and writing childrens books. In 1989, she designed the uniforms for the NBAs Indiana Pacers. As an author of childrens books she wrote a series featuring a character named Barry Bam Bam. She and Al had a daughter named Mary Ruth, and Griffith-Joyner was featured on television occasionally. After she appeared in the National Got Milk ad campaign, she was named an honorary board member of the National Osteoporosis Foundation. In 1996 she attempted a comeback for the Atlanta Olympic Games but found that she had been out of the sport for too long. That year also brought the first warning that Griffith-Joyner was human after all.

On a flight from California to St. Louis for the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Relays for high school students, Griffith-Joyner suffered a heart seizure and was hospitalized for one day.

Despite this warning, the woman who had always run fast refused to slow down. She was appointed a co-chair of the Presidents Council on Physical Fitness. Two years later her schedule remained just as busy. On the morning of September 21, 1998, Al Joyner walked into the bedroom to turn off the alarm at 6:30 A.M. He turned off the alarm and tried to wake up his wife, but she had suffered another heart seizure and died at the age of 38. Her death shocked the world, but she had accomplished more in her short life than most. As President Clinton said in his eulogy and was quoted in Merrell Nodens Sports Illustrated article: We were dazzled by her speed, humbled by her talent, and captivated by her style. Though she rose to the pinnacle of the world of sports, she never forgot where she came from, devoting time and resources to helping childrenespecially those growing up in our most devastated neighborhoodsmake the most of their own talents.



Anseng, Nathan. Florence Griffith Joyner: Dazzling Olympian. Lerner Publication: Minneapolis, MN, 1989.


Sports Illustrated, September 14, 1988; October 3, 1988; September 22, 1998.


Additional material for this profile was obtained online at and

Michael J. Watkins

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Griffith-Joyner, Florence 1959–1998

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