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Florence Griffith Joyner

Date of birth : 1959-12-21
Date of death : 1998-09-21
Birthplace : Los Angeles, California, United States
Nationality : American
Category : Sports
Last modified : 2010-07-06

Florence Griffith Joyner (also known as: Florence Joyner, Delores Florence Griffith, Flojo, Flo-Jo, Florence DeLorez Griffith Joyner) born December 21, 1959 in Los Angeles, California, United States - died September 21, 1998 in Mission Viejo, California, United States is an African-American sprinter .


Florence Griffith Joyner, known as "FloJo," was the fastest woman alive. She won three gold medals at the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, in the 100- and 200-meter runs and the 4x100 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 on December 21, 1959, the seventh of 11 children. Her father worked as an electrical contractor, and her mother was a teacher. At age four, 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."

Olympic Dreams

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, when 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 .027 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.

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 4x100-meter relay, and took home a silver in the 4x400-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 brightly-patterned. 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.

Griffith Joyner was beloved around the world not just for her astonishing accomplishments on the track. 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 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."

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."


AWARDS

1973, Wins Jesse Owens National Youth Games; 1981, Breaks American college record in World Cup 4x100-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.

CHRONOLOGY

* 1959 Born December 21 in 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


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