Joyner, Florence Griffith (1959–1998)

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Joyner, Florence Griffith (1959–1998)

Gold medal-winning African-American Olympic sprinter known as "the fastest woman alive." Name variations: Flo-Jo. Born Delorez Florence Griffith on December 21, 1959, in Los Angeles, California; died of heart seizure on September 21, 1998; grew up in Watts section of L.A.; seventh of eleven children of Florence Griffith and Robert Griffith; attended California State University at Northridge; attended University of California at Los Angeles; married Alfred Joyner (her trainer), on October 10, 1987; sister-in-law of Jackie Joyner-Kersee (b. 1962); children: Mary Ruth Joyner (b. 1990).

Began running track at age seven, eventually qualifying for the Olympics (1984) after supporting her training by working as, among other things, a waitress and a hairstylist; won a silver medal in the 200-meter sprint at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles (1984); medaled at the World Outdoor Championships, taking second in the 200-meter and running on the winning 4x100 relay team; returned to the Olympic arena for the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, in which she won three gold medals (100, 200, 4x100) and one silver (4x400), becoming the most decorated female sprinter in Olympic history (1988); named U.S. Olympic Committee's Sports woman of the Year, Track and Field magazine's Athlete of the Year, Associated Press Sportswoman of the Year, United Press International's Sportswoman of the Year, and Tass News Agency's Sports Personality of the Year (1988); given the Jessie Owens Award as most outstanding track-and-field athlete, as well as being named co-chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness (1988); won the Sullivan Trophy (1988); announced her retirement from professional track and founded the Florence Griffith Joyner Youth Foundation (1989); inducted into the USATF Hall of Fame (1995); chosen by President Bill Clinton, along with basketball player Tom McMillen, to co-chair the President's Council on Physical Fitness (1997).

Florence Griffith Joyner">

You never fail until you stop trying.

—Florence Griffith Joyner

It was not the best weather for a track-and-field meet. The thousands of spectators, crowded into Indiana University's stadium one sweltering July day in 1988, shielded themselves from the 98° heat with umbrellas, or mingled in the shade of the stands between events. It was worse down on the track, where a reading of well over 100° rippled off the running surface. Given the lethargic heat of a Midwest summer, an unusual amount of excited energy filled the stadium when a tall, strikingly beautiful runner assumed her assigned position at the blocks for a preliminary heat of the women's 100-meter dash—the first salvo in the fierce competition for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team which would travel to Seoul, South Korea, in two months' time. Her long, dark hair flowed freely onto her shoulders; she wore eye makeup and lipstick, had long, brightly painted nails; even more eye-catching, she wore an iridescent, emerald green body suit. But the crowd completely forgot about these outward attractions as soon as the starting gun fired, watching Florence Griffith Joyner set a new world's record in little more than ten-and-a-half seconds. Sports reporters and commentators raced for the phones to report that "Flo-Jo" was back in the game.

No one who knew Joyner was surprised at the attention, for she had been deliberately courting notice since her childhood days as one of eleven children. Her mother Florence, after whom she was named, had moved to Los Angeles from North Carolina as a young woman with hopes of becoming a model, but had settled for seamstress work before marrying Robert Griffith, an airline electronics technician. Their seventh child, Delorez Florence, nicknamed "Dee Dee," was born on December 21, 1959. Not long after the birth, the Griffiths moved to a small town in the Mojave Desert, where four more children were born before Florence Griffith , deciding the desert was no place to raise a family, divorced her husband and moved back to Los Angeles and a housing project in the city's Watts section. Despite being a single mother of 11, Florence was convinced that opportunities for her youngsters were more plentiful in the city. "I explained to the children that life was like a baby," she said. "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 housing project, I told them 'Start walking.'"

Dee Dee ran instead. On visits to her father, who had remained in the desert, she attracted attention by chasing jackrabbits; at home in Los Angeles, she could outrun her six brothers and was entering races by the time she was seven, under the auspices of the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation. Running, Joyner later remembered, was "just another thing to do," a legitimate way to channel the energy pent up by a decidedly strict upbringing. Her mother allowed no television during the week and made sure lights were out by ten at night. She taught her daughter crocheting, knitting, and hairstyling. Once a week, she conducted a Bible study class with her children, during which they were required to reveal what they'd done wrong since the last such meeting. Dee Dee would admit many years later that her independent spirit and discipline came from her mother. "She taught us all that nothing is going to be handed to you," she said. "You have to make things happen." As if to underscore her mother's lessons, Joyner made sure she stood out at school by twisting her hair into a single braid and training it to stand straight up; and she was once evicted from a mall

for strolling the corridors with her pet boa constrictor, Brandy, wrapped around her neck.

When she was 14, Florence (who had by now abandoned her childhood nickname) was named the top athlete at the Jessie Owens National Youth Games in Los Angeles, winning a trip to San Francisco; by the time she graduated from Jordan High School in 1978, she had broken several records for sprinting and for the long jump. Even so, running remained a part-time activity when Joyner enrolled the next year at California State University in Northridge (CSUN), majoring in business administration. When money ran out after her first year, she was forced to leave school and take a job as a bank teller; but if Florence did not see her future in running, one of her acquaintances at CSUN did.

Bob Kersee, the school's track coach at the time, quickly recognized Joyner's talent and helped her find financial aid, allowing her to return to school, where he advised her to concentrate on the 200-meter dash. The next year, when Bob Kersee moved to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to become that school's women's track coach, Florence followed. Bolstered by Bob Kersee's coaching, Florence entered the trials for the 1980 Olympics, to be held in Moscow, but missed qualifying for the team by a few hundredths of a second, trailing Valerie Brisco-Hooks , who was also from Watts and whom she had known since childhood. Florence's disappointment may have been tempered somewhat when the United States joined several Western nations in boycotting that

year's games in protest over the Soviet Union's military intervention in Afghanistan.

Now setting her sights on the 1984 Games to be held in Los Angeles, Florence began training in earnest with Bob Kersee, becoming an active member of his World Class Track Club and meeting two other athletes who would figure as prominently in her life as Bob Kersee himself—Jackie Joyner (Kersee) , who was in training for the heptathlon to be offered for the first time at the '84 Games, and her brother Al Joyner, who was also intent on competing in the triple jump. Under Bob Kersee's rigorous eye, Florence's remarkable athletic gifts blossomed. After two years with Bob Kersee, Florence won the 200-meter at the 1982 NCAA championships with a time of 22:39. Returning to the championships the next year, she won the 400-meter and placed second in the 200-meter. By early 1984, Bob Kersee felt she was ready for Olympic competition and was proved right when Florence qualified for the 200-meter dash.

It was at the Los Angeles Games that Florence's skill came to world attention, along with the expected comments about her flamboyant running outfits, elegant makeup, and her red, white, and blue fingernails. Only nine of them were so patriotically colored, for Joyner chose to paint the tenth a sparkling gold to symbolize her hopes for a gold medal. But she was to be disappointed once more, even though she came away with the silver medal for the 200-meter after once again trailing Valerie Brisco-Hooks. Despite an impressive time for the race of 22:04, Joyner decided to quit serious running, over Bob Kersee's vehement protests. Instead, she worked as a customer service representative by day and supplemented her income by braiding hair at night; she also relaxed her training and gained 15 pounds.

Added to Bob Kersee's blandishments were those from Al Joyner, who had won his gold medal for the triple jump at Los Angeles. Al had told his sister Jackie that he thought Florence was "the most beautiful woman in the world"; Florence would later admit that it was Al's encouragement that brought her back to Bob Kersee's gym and a new training regimen for the 1988 Games in South Korea. Unable to afford quitting her jobs, Florence trained in her spare time, sometimes going without sleep for two days at a stretch. She ran up to four miles a day, despite the ruling wisdom that sprinters should avoid running long distances; and on the advice of runner Ben Johnson, she began a weight-lifting program. "If you want to run like a man, you have to train like a man," she said, working her way up to pressing 320 pounds. But by early 1987, Florence's independent streak took hold. She began to chafe under Bob Kersee's system, which laid great emphasis on emulating other, more successful, runners—in Florence's case, Evelyn Ashford and Marita Koch , both triumphant rivals. Early in 1987, Florence announced she was breaking with Bob Kersee and would be training instead with Al Joyner.

Her relationship with Al had progressed far beyond athletics, however. Al's traditional proposal during the summer of 1987, hand to heart and knee to floor, was no doubt enhanced by the fact that, at the time, the two of them were in the back seat of a limousine he had rented for the occasion; Florence's delayed answer was given at a pizza parlor some nights later, when she took a yellow charm in the shape of the word "yes" that her nephew had won at Skee-Ball and passed it under the table to Al. Their marriage in Las Vegas on October 10, 1987, completed what would come to be called the Royal Family of track, for Bob Kersee had, the year before, married Al's sister, Jackie. All four denied rumors of frictions and hard feelings following Florence's decision to leave Bob Kersee's gym. "I hold no personal contract with any athlete," Bob Kersee said. "[Florence] was free to do what she thought best. We have to not let gold medals… interfere with the family." And Florence pointed out to a press conference that "no matter what we say, we love each other. I hope Bobby knows it's good for me to move on, like a child leaving the nest."

For her new training regimen with Al Joyner, Florence increased the intensity of her weight training and made use of a simple observation she had made about other runners—that stress and tension affected an athlete's performance on the track, preventing muscles and mind from working together harmoniously. Instead, Joyner realized that what was needed was a relaxed attitude (she especially pointed to Carl Lewis as an example) which would allow for greater concentration at the starting block. By the time she arrived at the World championships in Rome shortly after her marriage to Al Joyner, she was ready to put her theories to the test. The result was a silver medal in the 200-meter dash and the decision to focus on the upcoming 1988 Olympic Games. "When you've been second best for so long," Florence said, "you can either accept it or try to become the best. I made the decision to try and be the best in 1988."

By the spring of 1988, most commentators gave Florence a good prognosis for the 200-meter, but both Bob Kersee and Al Joyner knew that Florence was in peak condition and ready for more than one event. Al remembered going for an early evening run with Florence, during which he reminded her to slow down after the first 50 yards only to watch her increase her pace with no apparent effort; and Bob Kersee had clocked her at 10:89 in a 100-meter dash in San Diego—little more than a tenth of a second behind the current world record—only to have Florence complain afterward about what a bad day she was having. In July of 1988, Florence headed to Indianapolis for the summer trials, the first stage in her quest for Olympic gold, hoping for a spot on the women's track team going to the autumn games in Seoul. Her suitcase contained 14 running outfits she had designed herself.

Drechsler, Heike (1964—)

German track-and-field champion. Born on December 16, 1964.

In 1988, Heike Drechsler took the silver in the long jump in the Seoul Olympics, along with bronze medals in the 200-meters and the 100 meters. In the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, she won the gold medal in the long jump with a 7.14 effort. Inessa Kravets of the Soviet Union came in second while Jackie Joyner-Kersee took the bronze.

Her first time out of the starting block at Indianapolis, in her emerald green suit for the 100-meter, Joyner electrified the spectators by breaking Evelyn Ashford's world record with a time of 10:60, even though the record was not officially accepted because of tail winds which were clocked some three and half miles stronger than allowed by Olympic rules. Advancing to the quarterfinals, Florence sported a turquoise-and-purple running suit, with one leg covered and one leg exposed, along with nails painted in orange and black stripes, as she streaked down the track in 10:49, breaking her own record. "When I saw the time," Joyner later recalled, "I couldn't believe it. It made me realize that if I kept concentrating, I could go faster." Now that she had flummoxed the sports press by winning an event for which they had not given her much of a chance, she went on to set a U.S. record for the 200-meter, with a time of 21:77, only six-hundredths of a second slower than the world record then held by two German runners, Marita Koch and Heike Drechsler , and turning the tables on Valerie Brisco-Hooks, who came in second. "Now, I'm ready for my final goal, some Olympic gold," she told the admiring press conference which immediately dubbed her "Flo-Jo."

Her arrival in Seoul two months later got off to a worrisome start when, at the airport, Al's baggage cart toppled over onto her ankle, injuring her Achilles' tendon and forcing her to miss several days of training. Although the press seized on the incident as a bad omen, Joyner begged to differ and proved it when she stepped to the block for the 100-meter, in which she outran Drechsler in the semifinals by little more than two-tenths of a second. Joyner faced Drechsler again in the finals, along with Evelyn Ashford, who then held the world record for the event. Track fans still remember the huge smile that flashed across Flo-Jo's elegant features at the 90-meter mark and the arms raised in victory ten meters later as she obliterated Ashford's world record with a time of 10:54. Ashford placed a distant second, at 10:83. "That smile came from within," Florence later said. "I was finally seeing myself on the Olympic team, as a gold medalist." The only disappointment was the judges' decision not to enter the time as a world record, again because of high tail winds.

Three days later, Florence sported a white lace running suit (her "athletic negligée," as she called it) as she swept to another gold in the 200-meter, after breaking the world record twice—once in the semifinals, and then surpassing herself in the finals with a time of 21:34. She broke the tape four meters ahead of Jamaica's Grace Jackson , while Drechsler placed a distant third. As Joyner knelt on the field in thanks and then opened her arms to hug an ebullient Al, cameras focused on her long, scimitar-like nails which would, oddly, become an issue in Florence's next event, the 4x100 relay.

Judges had actually disqualified her from the relay in 1984 because of the six-inch nails, claiming they would interfere with passing the baton in the exchange zone. The same argument was raised in Seoul, but Al and American Olympic officials prevailed, and Joyner was assigned the third, 100-meter leg, in which she led her competitors by three feet by the time she reached a waiting Evelyn Ashford, who would run the final leg. Although Florence did, indeed, bobble the baton in the pass, Ashford managed to get a grip and completed the race in first place. Florence now had her third gold medal. Any athlete would have been proud of such a stunning, three-event Olympic record, but Joyner eagerly accepted a last-minute offer to run the 4x400-meter relay with its allure of an unprecedented fourth gold medal. Thus, just 40 minutes after running the 4x100, she streaked off on the final leg of the 4x400-meter and arrived at the finish line in 48:10, setting another record for the fastest time over her assigned distance. Even though she placed second behind a Soviet runner, whose team took the gold while the Americans captured the silver, Florence beamed with pride at the finish line. "I felt that the silver was the special one, because of the team's trust in giving me the chance," she said. "That silver is gold to me."

Along with every other track-and-field competitor at the 1988 Games, including her sister-in-law Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence suffered from the controversy generated by her friend Ben Johnson's disqualification for competing while using steroids; and along with Jackie, she vehemently and repeatedly denied using any such substances at any time during her career, becoming particularly incensed when Carl Lewis implied at a press conference that Bob Kersee had routinely made steroids part of his training regimen. Al was quick to come to his wife's defense. "Florence runs 10:49 in the Olympic trials," Al bitterly complained, "and it's wind. She does 21:34 here, and they say it's drugs." But no one could take away Joyner's stunning performance in Seoul and her newfound stature as the most decorated female sprinter in Olympic history. She had become the first American woman since Wilma Rudolph in 1960 to win more than two gold medals in one Olympics for track and field; she had nearly equaled the four-medal record set by Holland's Fanny Blankers-Koen in 1948 and could claim responsibility, in combination with Jackie, for five-sixths of the U.S. women's track-and-field gold medals that year (Jackie Joyner-Kersee had won the gold for the high jump and the heptathlon).

More practically, the financial rewards of sports stardom finally put an end to the economic tightrope that had been such a part of Florence's years in training. Although she had been approached even before the trials in Indianapolis, the multimillion-dollar offers for endorsements, story rights, and public appearances began to mount to such affluent proportions that some wags in the press began to refer to her as "Cash Flo." Starting with advertisements for everything from pharmaceutical companies to running shoes, Joyner's glamorous image became associated with copying machines, nail and hair products, a "Flo-Jo Doll," and a line of sporting apparel that Florence designed herself. Amid all the activity and demands for her time, suggestions from both her parents and from Al that her peak running years were over began to make sense. In February of 1989, at 30 years of age, Joyner announced her formal retirement from running after receiving the Jessie Owens Award as 1988's most outstanding athlete. "I was denying reality," she said. "I cried about it, but I decided."

But her retirement was not easy. Only a few months after her announcement, Joyner admitted that she missed running more than she'd ever imagined and swore that she'd be running in a marathon within five years. She began competing in celebrity races and fund-raising events, but an attempt to qualify for the 400 meters at the 1996 Games in Atlanta had to be abandoned because of an injury to the same Achilles' tendon that plagued her just before the games in Seoul. Joyner sought other outlets for her energies by serving on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and lending her name to programs designed to help disadvantaged children; helping Jackie Joyner-Kersee train for her third Olympic heptathlon gold at the 1992 Games in Barcelona; writing a series of children's books and a novel; and accepting guest appearances on television chat shows and sitcoms.

Precisely because Joyner's boundless energy had spilled over into so many areas outside of sports, news of her untimely death on September 21, 1998, was all the more shocking. She was only 38 when an apparent heart seizure claimed her life as she slept. Al Joyner revealed that two years earlier, Florence had suffered a similar incident which required hospitalization but had insisted at the time that the episode not be publicized. "We were dazzled by her speed, humbled by her talent, and captivated by her style," President Bill Clinton told reporters in Washington; while Jackie Joyner-Kersee told the media, "A great athlete passed away today, but more importantly" she was "a great human being."

Taking her mother's lesson of self-reliance to heart, Florence proved that sheer determination was enough to break through any obstacle, and that feminine sensibilities had a place in a world normally infused with masculine standards. "For a long time, we've been thought of as jocks," Wilma Rudolph pointed out after watching Joyner's colorful performance in Seoul. "Florence brings in the glamour." Florence Griffith Joyner, with a flash of gold, a streak of bright color, and a stream of flowing dark hair became "the fastest woman alive."

sources:

Aaseng, Nathan. Florence Griffith Joyner: Dazzling Olympian. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 1989.

Koral, April. Florence Griffith Joyner: Track and Field Star. NY: Franklin Watts, 1992.

Moore, Kenny. "A Special Fire," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 69, no. 16. October 10, 1988.

——. "The Spoils of Victory," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 70, no. 16. April 10, 1989.

Salem, Dorothy C., ed. African-American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. NY: Garland, 1993.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York