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."
Further Reading on Florence Griffith Joyner
Aaseng, Nathan, Florence Griffith Joyner, Lerner, 1989.
Sports Illustrated, July 25, 1988; special Summer Olympics preview issue, September, 1988; September 14, 1988; October 3, 1988; October 10, 1988; December 19, 1988; December 26, 1988.
"Commentary on the Death of Florence Griffith Joyner," Just Sports For Women, http://www.justwomen.com/archivegogirl/gogirl092698flojoquotes.html ," (February 27, 1999).
Dillman, Lisa, "Determination Lay Inside Diva of Track," Los Angeles Times Sports Update, http://www.latimes.com/HOME/NEWS/SPORTS/UPDATES/latreax0922.html ," (February 27, 1999).
"FloJo's Career in Review," CBS Sports Line, http://cbs.sportsline.com/u/women/,"more/sep98/flojofacts92198.html (February 27, 1999).
"Florence Griffith Joyner," http://www.knickerbocker.com/highpark/florencejoynerbio.html ," (February 27, 1999).
"Florence Griffith Joyner Dies At 38," Channel 2000, http://www.channel2000.com/news/stories/news-980921-163942.html ," (February 27, 1999).
"Friends, fans pay respects to one of their own," CFRA News Talk Radio, http://interactive.cfra.com/1998/09/25/63882.htnl," (February 27, 1999).
Gerber, Larry, "Autopsy reveals Griffith Joyner died from Epileptic seizre," Detroit News http://www.detnews.com/1998/sports/9810/23/10230067.html (February 27, 1999).
"One of Griffith Joyner's Dreams Lives On," CNN Sports Illustrated, http://www.cnnsi.com/athletics/news/1998/10/21/joynergoal/," (February 27, 1999).
"Sprinter Griffith Joyner, 38, Dies in Her Sleep, Washington Post, http://lupus.northern.edu:90/hastingw/joyner.html ," (February 27, 1999).