Joyner, Florence Griffith (1959-1998)

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Joyner, Florence Griffith (1959-1998)

One of the most beloved athletes of the late twentieth century, Olympic track and field star Florence Griffith Joyner, or more commonly "FloJo," inspired legions of young aspiring female athletes with her speed, her confidence, and her winning looks. Almost as famous for her muscular physique and her flamboyant style, particularly her six-inch-long, intricately patterned and polished fingernails, Joyner made the track and field establishment sit up and take notice, and officials and fans alike mourned her sudden death, at 38, of an apparent heart seizure.

Blazing down the track in brightly colored outfits, including her one-legged tights, Joyner was hailed as the world's fastest woman runner at the peak of her career in the mid-1980s. A phenomenal sprinter holding records in the 100-and 200-meter dashes, she also won three gold medals and two silvers at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea. While a planned comeback in 1996 failed to materialize due to an Achilles tendon injury, Joyner continued to be a presence in track and field events even after her Olympic sweep.

Born December 21, 1959, Joyner was raised in the projects of the Watts district of Los Angeles, the seventh of ten children of electronics technician Robert Griffith and his wife, after whom Florence would be named. Starting to run for sport at age seven, Joyner continued her hobby even after doctors found the teenaged runner had a heart murmur and advised her to quit. Under the tutelage and encouragement of coach Bobby Kersee, Joyner earned a sports scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles. During her time at UCLA, she ranked as NCAA champion with a 22.39 time on the 200-meter dash before graduating in 1983 with a degree in psychology. After college, Joyner continued to develop her phenomenal speed, and went on to win the silver medal in the 200 meters during the 1984 Olympics in her home town of Los Angeles.

Retiring briefly from running after her Olympic victory to pursue work as a bank secretary and beautician, Joyner was encouraged to return to the track by Kersee. Her records in the 100- (10.49) and 200-meter (21.34) dashes in Seoul remained unbroken after her death. In October 1987 she married coach and Olympic gold medalist Al Joyner, the older brother of heptathlon world-recordholder Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The couple made their new home in Mission Viejo, California, and in 1988 Al Joyner took over coaching duties for his wife from Kersee. The couple's daughter, Mary, was born in 1991.

Retiring from her career as a sprinter in 1989, Joyner turned her enormous energies to designing sportswear and working toward getting her cosmetology license. Her determination and desire for perfection drove her in these areas as they had her running career. She also designed uniforms for the NBA team the Indiana Pacers, and co-chaired the President's Council on Physical Fitness as a means of further inspiring young athletes.

Joyner's untimely death at age 38 was noted by President Clinton, who told reporters that "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." While some in the media speculated that Joyner's rumored use of performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids may have contributed to her death, such rumors had consistently been disproved throughout her career: during the Olympics she was tested for drug use 11 times without problem. It was widely known that the athlete had suffered from a number of medical problems throughout her career and had been hospitalized on several occasions. She also experienced increased episodes of fatigue during 1997. An autopsy revealed that Joyner died in her sleep of asphyxiation, the result of an epileptic seizure. Left behind to mourn this energetic and inspiring athlete were her husband, her seven-year-old daughter Mary, and legions of fans who considered themselves fortunate to have witnessed the amazing performance of the fastest woman in the world.

—Pamela L. Shelton

Further Reading:

Moore, Kenny. "Very Fancy, Very Fast." Sports Illustrated. September 14, 1988.

Pellegrini, Frank. "FloJo, 1959-1988." Time. September 22, 1998.

Stewart, Mark. Florence Griffith-Joyner. New York, Children's Press, 1997.

Tresniowski, Alex, et al. "Like Lightning." People. October 5, 1998.

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Joyner, Florence Griffith (1959-1998)

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