Florence "Flojo" Griffith Joyner: Track & Field
American Star of the Women’s International Sports Hall of Fame
Most people recognize Florence Griffith Joyner, famously known as Flo-Jo, as the fastest woman of all time. After all, she holds two world records and earned three Olympic gold medals. Many also remember her unconventional and flamboyant style. She was easily recognizable with her six-inch-long fingernails, long flowing hair, and brightly colored outfits. She, in many ways, brought beauty and femininity to the world of sports. On the other hand, her critics may remember her alleged drug use or untimely death. Very few, however, recognize her accomplishments off the track, her involvement in the community, and the obstacles she overcame to become one of the most influential figures in track and field history.
From the moment she was born, on December 21, 1959, Griffith Joyner was determined to be successful. Born in the poor neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles, California, she was the seventh of 11 children. Her natural speed and aptitude for track and field were discovered while Griffith Joyner was partaking in one her favorite childhood activities, chasing jackrabbits outside of her home in the Mojave Desert. When she was five, her father dared her to catch one, and when she easily accomplished this task, it was clear that she had a gift. It was only two years later when she began running track. At age 14, she won the Jesse Owens National Youth Games. When she graduated from Los Angeles Jordan High School in 1978, she had set the school’s long jump and sprint records.1
In 1979, Florence headed to California State University at Northridge to work with the renowned coach, Bob Kersee, the future husband of the great Jackie Joyner-Kersee. However, she had to drop out after her first year and accept a job as a bank teller to provide for her struggling family. Fortunately, Kersee was eventually able to find financial aid for Griffith, so she was able to reenroll in school the following year. In 1980, Kersee accepted a coaching job with UCLA and Florence followed him there, thus beginning her decorated career at UCLA. She was a national champion in both the 200- and 400-meter dashes and was also a member of the 4x100 relay that broke the collegiate record in 1981.
After graduating in 1983 with a degree in psychology, Griffith focused on training for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Her hard work earned her a silver medal in the 200-meter. Following the Olympics, Griffith took a small break from track, and she, once again, worked as a bank teller and often braided hair at night for extra money. In 1987, she married Al Joyner, the 1984 Olympic long jump champion and the older brother of Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Al immediately acted as her training partner and assisted in coaching duties with Bob Kersee. With the help of her husband and coach, Griffith Joyner was quickly back to her old form and ready for the 1988 Summer Olympics.
All of Griffith Joyner’s hard work and dedication proved to be a success at the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis. In a single race, she went from a world-class athlete to the “fastest woman of all time.” She ran a blistering 10.49 seconds in the 100-meter dash, breaking Evelyn Ashford’s previous world record by 0.27 seconds. Her amazing success continued into the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, where she would add another world record by running a 21.34 in the 200-meter. She left Seoul with three gold medals, one silver medal, and a new nickname, “Flo-Jo.”
Unfortunately, all the success and attention from Seoul brought rumors of steroid use. She was ultimately drug tested 11 different times and never failed once, but her incredible comeback, muscular physique, and record-breaking performances ignited controversy. Despite these rumors, Florence Griffith Joyner’s accomplishments continued to be recognized. She was voted female athlete of the year by the AP and earned the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete.
As Griffith Joyner drifted away from the sport of track and field, the doping rumors seemed to settle down. Flo-Jo was involved in numerous activities, including writing children’s books, designing uniforms for the Indiana Pacers, modeling, and broadcasting sports. In 1991, Griffith Joyner and her husband had a daughter, Mary. Griffith Joyner was quickly proving that she could be just as successful off the track.
Then suddenly, on September 21, 1998, Florence Griffith Joyner died in her sleep at the age of 38. This unexpected tragedy immediately sparked up rumors and was blamed on everything from chronic steroid use, to allergies, to homicide. Her autopsy eliminated these theories, revealing that she had died of asphyxiation from an epileptic seizure. The autopsy results were also unable to prove or disprove whether drugs, steroids, or human growth hormones contributed to her death.
Unfortunately, Florence Griffith Joyner’s untimely death overshadowed her incredible impact on the community and world of sports. With all the attention centered on her mysterious death, very few people realized that she founded a children’s organization. The Florence Griffith Joyner Youth Foundation is a nonprofit program that serves disadvantaged youth. Also, at the time of her death, Griffith Joyner was serving as a co-chair for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. President Bill Clinton honored her work by saying, “Though she rose to the pinnacle of the world of sports, she never forgot where she came from, devoting time and resources to helping children—especially those growing up in our most devastated neighborhoods—make the most of their own talents.”2
Florence Griffith Joyner remains a hero to many people, not only for her record-breaking performances, but for her inward and outward beauty. Her legacy lives on, as her two world records remain and are considered by many to be untouchable. Although young sprinters aspire to be like Florence Griffith Joyner someday, she would want them to dream bigger. She inspired children to fulfill their dreams and constantly strive for greatness. When speaking to America’s youth, she always told them, “Don’t try to be me. Be better than me.”3 So far, no one has been.
1 Biography. “Florence Griffith Joyner,” www.FlorenceGriffithJoyner.com (accessed November 2, 2007).
2 CNN. “Florence Griffith Joyner,” http://edition.cnn.com/2008/SPORT/04/30/florencegriffithjoyner/ index.html (accessed November 2, 2007).
3 Answers.com. “Florence Griffith Joyner,” http://www.answers.com/topic/florence-griffith-joyner (accessed November 2, 2007).
This excerpt was written by Sara Jane Baker.