Florence Griffith Joyner
Griffith Joyner, Florence
Florence Griffith Joyner, known as "FloJo," was the fastest woman alive. She won three gold medals at the Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea in 1988-in the 100- and 200-meter runs, and the 4×100 meter relay. Her world records for the 100 and 200 meters remain unbroken. The vibrant Griffith Joyner often wore flashy running outfits and long, brightly painted fingernails while competing. She died in her sleep at her home in Mission Viejo, California in 1998, after a seizure, at age 38.
Born to Run
Griffith Joyner was born Delorez Florence Griffith, the seventh of 11 children. Her father worked as an electrical contractor, and her mother was a teacher. At age 4, her mother, also named Florence Griffith, left her husband and the house in California's Mojave Desert, taking the kids to live in a public housing project in the impoverished Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Griffith Joyner's mother later told Pete Axthelm and Pamela Abramson in Newsweek, "We had nothing. But I explained to the children that life was like a baby. A baby comes into the world without anything. Then it starts crawling, then it stands up. Then it takes its first step and starts walking. When we moved into the project I told them, 'Start walking.'"
Griffith Joyner began racing competitively at age seven. She also developed an interest in fashion that would become her trademark. Once her unusual style got her into trouble; she was kicked out of a shopping mall for wearing her boa constrictor pet as an accessory.
On visits to the desert, where her father still lived, she kept in shape for running by chasing jackrabbits. She actually managed to catch one or two, she recalled.
The elder Florence Griffith kept her family together with strict rules and weekly family meetings she called "powwows." At these gatherings, the mother and her children would reflect on the events of the week and use stories from the Bible as examples for how they could improve themselves. Griffith Joyner studied the Bible and prayed through adulthood. She credited her mother for keeping all her children away from the drugs and violence that ruined the lives of many of their neighbors. "We didn't know how poor we were," Griffith Joyner told Newsweek. "We were rich as a family."
After graduating from Jordan High School in Los Angeles in 1978, Griffith Joyner enrolled at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), but dropped out in 1979 to help support her struggling family financially. She also had to drop running as a sport. She took a job as a bank teller, and there she would have remained if not for the efforts of her coach at CSUN, Bob Kersee. Kersee helped her find financial aid so she could return to school. When Kersee took the coaching job at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 1980, Griffith Joyner went with him. There she continued to build a reputation as an outstanding sprinter. She graduated from UCLA in 1983 with a degree in psychology.
With Kersee still her coach, Griffith Joyner competed in her first Olympics in 1984; Los Angeles hosted the Summer Games. Running in her hometown, she won the silver medal in the 200-meter run. After the 1984 Olympics, Griffith Joyner retired from running, again taking a bank job, and also working as a beautician. But starting in 1987, she began again to train, this time for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
In 1987, Griffith Joyner married Al Joyner, who won the gold for the triple jump in the 1984 Games. Al's sister, Jackie Joyner-Kersee (married to Bob Kersee, who also coached her) was an Olympic medalist, and a world record holder in the heptathlon. When Griffith Joyner dropped Kersee as her coach, citing his controlling tendencies, and replaced him with her husband, it created a rift between the Joyners and the Kersees.
World's Fastest Woman
On July 16, 1988, while trying out in Indianapolis for the Olympics, Griffith Joyner broke the world record for the fastest time for a woman in the 100-meter run. She did it wearing a purple body suit that had one leg cut off and a pair of colorful bikini bottoms over it. Her time was 10.49 seconds, beating Evelyn Ashford 's record by 27-hundredths of a second. Ashford, who had set her record in 1984, went on to finish second after Griffith Joyner in the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics.
|1959||Born in Los Angeles, California|
|1978||Graduates from Jordan High School in Los Angeles|
|1983||Graduates from college at UCLA|
|1984||Left off an Olympic relay team because officials said her fingernails were too long to pass the baton|
|1987||Marries Al Joyner|
|1989||Retires from competitive running|
|1993||Appointed co-chair of President's Council on Physical Fitness.|
|1998||Dies in her Mission Viejo, California home after a seizure|
Some accused Griffith Joyner of illegally taking human growth hormone or steroids to boost her speed, pointing to her rapid muscle development. Griffith Joyner vehemently denied these allegations, saying, according to Jere Longman in the New York Times, "I have never taken any drugs. I don't believe in them. It's a false accusation." She cited weight training and her renewed commitment to her sport after marrying Al Joyner.
In 1989, Darrell Robinson, a former national 400-meter champion, said he had sold a human growth hormone to Griffith Joyner a year earlier. An angry Griffith Joyner, denying the accusation, called Robinson "a compulsive, crazy, lying lunatic."
Although the drug charges were never proven, they continued to haunt Griffith Joyner. Rumors even spread linking her death to drug use. "I think for Florence, the drug issue will always come up, whether she did it or not," Ashford told Longman.
Griffith Joyner went on to win the gold medal for the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics. She also broke the record for the 200 meters, winning another gold with 21.34. Griffith Joyner added a third gold at that Olympiad, in the 4×100-meter relay, and took home a silver in the 4×400-meter relay.
A Life Ended too Soon
Griffith Joyner delighted crowds by dressing like no other runner before her or after. Her running suits typically left one leg bare and were colorful and brightlypatterned. She also wore her nails six inches long and had them elaborately painted. When she retired from competitive running in 1989, she took a job designing uniforms for the National Basketball Association's Indiana Pacers. Griffith Joyner's post-Olympic activities also included pursuing acting and writing careers, designing fingernail fashions, recording a series of fitness videos, and starting a family—she gave birth to her daughter, Mary, soon after retiring from racing. In 1993, she became co-chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness.
In 1996, Griffith Joyner had a seizure while on an airplane. She was hospitalized when the plane landed, and released after a day under medical observation. She died during the night of September 20, 1998. Her husband awoke beside her the next day and discovered she was not breathing. He immediately called an ambulance, but by then it was too late.
After learning of her death, President Clinton eulogized Griffith Joyner for her athletic achievements and personal style. He praised her for never forgetting her origins in a poor Los Angeles neighborhood, and for reaching out to help children in need even after she became famous.
Not just her astonishing accomplishments on the track made Griffith Joyner beloved around the world. Her unique style and charisma inspired a generation of girls. Besides her husband, Griffith Joyner is survived by their daughter, Mary, who was age seven when Griffith Joyner died.
Griffith Joyner's Legacy
Griffith Joyner had both style and substance. She overcame poverty to be the best in her sport, all while adding a touch of style. "In sum, Griffith Joyner… is as complex and fascinating as Olympic athletes come," Axthelm and Abramson wrote, shortly before her death. "Her life and career have had been filled with steep rises and falls, and she has persevered with strength and flair. She plays up her good looks as few Olympians have. But she also reads the Bible daily, prays before every meal and calls her mother at least twice a day."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1973||Wins Jesse Owens National Youth Games|
|1981||Breaks American college record in World Cup 4×100-meter relay|
|1982||Wins NCAA championship in 200-meter run|
|1983||Wins NCAA championship in 400-meter run|
|1984||Wins silver medal for 200-meter run at Olympics|
|1988||Breaks women's world record time for 100 meters|
|1988||Becomes first American woman to win four medals in one Olympics|
|1988||Named U.S. Olympic Committee's Sportswoman of the Year|
|1988||Named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year|
|1988||Named UPI Sportswoman of the Year|
|1988||Named Track and Field magazine's Athlete of the Year|
|1988||Named Jesse Owens Outstanding Track and Field Athlete|
|1988||Wins Sullivan Award for top amateur athlete|
|1995||Inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame|
Shared Passion for Fitness
Recognized for her intricately painted fingernails and brightly colored, often one-legged outfits, Olympic champion runner Florence Griffith Joyner ("Flo-Jo") captured the affection of the world with a combination of speed, grace and beauty. In the 1980s, when women athletes were given much less regard than their male counterparts, Flo-Jo helped female athletes gain respect. In fact, Flo-Jo's victories may have opened people's eyes to the talented female athletes in all sports and laid the groundwork for the public's embrace of this year's FIFA Women's World Cup soccer teams.
Source: Durrett, April. IDEA Health & Fitness Source, October 1999, p. 47.
Griffith Joyner admitted to having a small circle of friends, but added: "That doesn't bother me because with or without friends I have a million and one things to do. I don't frighten people away. They frighten themselves away."
Axthelm, Pete with Abramson, Pamela. "A Star Blazes in the Fast Lane." Newsweek (September 19, 1998): 54.
Durrett, April. "Sharing a Passion for Fitness." IDEA Health & Fitness Source (October 1999): 47.
Huebner, Barbara. "Griffith Joyner Dead at 38; Sprinter's Heart May Have Failed." Boston Globe (September 22, 1998): E7.
Longman, Jere. "Florence Griffith Joyner, 38 Champion Sprinter, Is Dead." New York Times (September 22, 1998): C23.
"FloJo: World's Fastest Woman." CNN-SI. http://www.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/olympics/features/joyner/gallery/. (January 24, 2003).
"Forence Griffith Joyner." Infoplease.com. http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0766184.html. (January 24, 2003).
Sketch by Michael Belfiore
Florence Griffith Joyner
Florence Griffith Joyner
Known for her outstanding athletic accomplishments as well as her sense of personal style, Florence Griffith Joyner (1959-1998) overcame difficult oddswith her tenacious determination to achieve Olympic fame.
Born Florence Delorez Griffith on December 21, 1959 in Los Angeles. "Dee Dee," as she was nicknamed in her youth, was the seventh of eleven children. Her mother, also named Florence, had married Dee Dee's father, Robert Griffith, after moving to California in search of a modeling career. The large family was settled in the Mojave Desert when the elder Florence decided that she needed to improve the educational opportunities for her children. She left Robert in 1964 and moved the eleven children back to Los Angeles, into a neighborhood known as Watts. A single mother raising such a large family was a tough challenge but Dee Dee's mother always kept her hopes up for her children. Dee Dee recalls her mother saying, "I just want to get you guys out of here. This is not home."
Doing Things Her Own Way
Dee Dee's personal style for fashion developed early in her childhood. She became known in grade school for her unusual hairstyles. Taught by her grandmother, who worked as a beautician, Dee Dee used her creativity to show her independence through her personal style, which would later become as well known as her athletic abilities. Most children would be happy to blend in with their peers, but Dee Dee wanted to stand out and be noticed. Griffith recalled in an interview for Sporting News: "We learned something from how we grew up. It has never been easy, and we knew it wouldn't be handed to us, unless we went after it."
Dee Dee's tenacious attitude and goal-setting ability was demonstrated on a trip to visit her father in the Mojave Desert. She caught a jackrabbit that attempted to outrun the determined child. Dee Dee's mother noticed her daughter's talent for moving with a graceful athleticism. When Dee Dee expressed an interest in running, her mother wholly supported her. At the age of seven, Dee Dee entered the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation running competition and defeated her opponent soundly. At the age of fourteen, she won the Jesse Owens National Youth Games competition. She continued her track career into high school where she not only found success in competition but also in her academics. This led her to apply for admission to California State University at Northridge (Cal State).
Griffith's freshman year was filled with business courses and competing in 200-meter and 400-meter events for the track team. Although she proved that she could compete athletically and academically at this level, money became an issue and she was forced to leave school. Her coach, Bob Kersee, talked her into returning after he helped her find monetary support through financial aid.
A Difficult Decision
In 1980, Griffith had a tough choice to make. Kersee left Cal State to work at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), a school that had won renown for its track teams. In an interview for Sports Illustrated, Griffith recalls the dilemma "I had a 3.25 grade point average in business, but UCLA didn't 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. So, it kind of hurts to say this, I chose athletics over academics."
Griffith's choice was confirmed when her success under Coach Kersee continued. She was invited to the Olympic trials in 1980 and just missed qualifying for the team by seconds. This defeat only increased her determination. In 1982, she won the 200-meter race at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship. The following year she won the 400-meter event at the NCAA. Griffith's flair for fashion began to match her running ability. She was known for her long fingernails that were polished with brilliant colors. Griffith's running outfits also captured attention as she began to wear skin-tight ensembles.
At the 1984 Olympic trials, Griffith won a spot on the track team and competed in the Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. With friends and family attending the competition to cheer her on, Griffith won the silver medal in the 200-meter race. She also was in contention for a position on the sprint-relay team, but U.S. officials at the games would not allow her to participate because of the length of her nails, which they felt would interfere with the baton hand-off. Griffith was disappointed with her own performance at the Olympics and took time off from competitive running to work as a beautician and a customer representative for a bank.
In the mid-1980s, Griffith began dating fellow Olympic athlete Al Joyner, who won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in the triple-jump competition. Joyner had come to California to train with Kersee for the 1988 Olympic trials. Al's sister, Jackie, was also training at the time with Kersee, who she eventually married. With the influence of Joyner, her interest in running competitively was re-ignited and she began to train again. Her sights were set on the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. A formidable partnership was established on October 10, 1987, when Griffith and Joyner married.
The Stage Is Set for the Olympics
Griffith Joyner found success at the 1987 World Games held in Rome, Italy. She won the silver in the 200-meter race and the gold as a member of the 400-meter relay team.
Over the next few months, Griffith Joyner concentrated on conditioning her body and mind by following a demanding training schedule. Urged on by her husband and Kersee, Griffith arrived at the Olympic trials in 1988 poised to set a record. In the 100-meter dash she achieved a time of 10.49 seconds-.27 seconds faster than the former record set by Evelyn Asford. There was no doubt that Griffith Joyner was setting the stage for a memorable performance at the Seoul Olympics. While her record-setting time brought Griffith Joyner accolades, it was her brightly colored running outfits designed by herself that gained her media attention and the nickname "Flo Jo."
Running in the 100-meter sprint at the Olympic Games in 1988, Griffith Joyner won the gold medal in a time of 10.54. She won another gold medal in the 200-meter race and set a new world record with a time of 21.34. Griffith Joyner also participated as a member of the 1,600-meter relay team that captured the silver. She ran this race after only a half-hour rest from a previous heat and with a thigh injury. Greg Foster, a world champion hurdler, commented in an article for the Los Angeles Times Sports Update regarding Griffith Joyner's personality: "The strength was there. A lot of times in track and field it is just believing in yourself." Her participation in the relay event demonstrated that belief in herself.
After the Olympics, Griffith Joyner received numerous awards, such as the U.S. Olympic Committee's Sportswoman of the Year, Jesse Owens Outstanding Track and Field Athlete, Sports Personality of the Year by the Tass News Agency, UPI Sportswoman of the Year, Associated Press Sportswoman of the Year, and Track and Field Magazine's Athlete of the Year. Griffith Joyner was also awarded the Sullivan Trophy for being the top amateur American athlete.
Griffith Joyner began to spread her creative talent off the track. She developed a clothing line, created nail products, dabbled in acting, and authored children's books. Along with her husband, Griffith Joyner established the Florence Griffith Joyner Youth Foundation in 1992 to aid disadvantaged youth. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the position of co-chairperson for the President's Council on Physical Fitness along with U.S. congressman Tom McMillen. Griffith Joyner commented on her appointment in an interview for The New York Times: "I love working with kids, talking with them and listening to them. I always encourage kids to reach beyond their dreams. Don't try to be like me. Be better than me." In 1995, she was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame. The most important post-Olympic event, however, was the birth of a daughter, Mary Ruth.
Griffith Joyner attempted a career comeback at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, but an injury ended that pursuit. Keeping busy with her various business endeavors, she was flying to St. Louis, Missouri in 1996 when she suffered an apparent seizure and was hospitalized. She recovered with no apparent health problems. The world was shocked when Griffith Joyner suffered an epileptic seizure while sleeping at her home in Mission Viejo, California on September 21, 1998. She died at the age of 38. Thousands paid their last respects to an inspirational woman who captured much attention, not only for her athletic talent, but also for her community-oriented endeavors.
Throughout most of her career, Griffith Joyner had to deal with ugly rumors of steroid use for peak performance. She always denied these rumors and never once failed a drug test. An autopsy found no trace of any suspicious substances, finally putting to rest any notion of drug use. Hybl commented on the findings, "We now hope that this great Olympic champion, wife, and mother can rest in peace, and that her millions of admirers around the world will celebrate her legacy to sport and children every day. It is time for the whispers and dark allegations to cease."
A Tribute to a Legend
As a tribute to his late wife's determination, Al Joyner announced that the clothing line that Griffith Joyner had been working on would be continued. In addition, partial proceeds would go towards supporting the Florence Griffith Joyner Memorial Empowerment Foundation. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Joyner recalled that "Florence had long dreamed of having her own signature line. As with everything in her life, she put a tremendous amount of time, energy, and passion into making this line a success. By continuing the work she started, we are adding to her legacy."
Aaseng, Nathan, Florence Griffith Joyner, Lerner, 1989.
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"Sprinter Griffith Joyner, 38, Dies in Her Sleep, Washington Post,http://lupus.northern.edu:90/hastingw/joyner.html," (February 27, 1999). □