Women's Track Star Griffith Joyner Dies

Posted: September 22, 1998

Florence Griffith Joyner, 38, who overwhelmed the track world a decade ago with her unrivaled speed, style and panache, died of an apparent heart attack yesterday at her home in Mission Viejo, Calif.

Known widely and affectionately as FloJo, Mrs. Griffith Joyner was a triple gold-medal winner at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the fastest woman to set foot on a track.

But for all she accomplished as a runner, she was as well-known for her dazzling personal flair, marked by a flowing mane of hair, skintight running suits, and glittering six-inch fingernails, all of which defied convention at the time.

``Florence brought a certain style to track, something so different, with her fashionable appearance and her stunning speed,'' said Patricia Rico, president of USA Track and Field.

In the judgment of Greg Foster, a three-time world champion in the 110-meter hurdles, her death cost the sport ``one of the great track and field athletes in history.''

Paramedics were called to Mrs. Griffith Joyner's home after her husband, Al Joyner, reported finding her ``unresponsive and not breathing'' yesterday morning, according to the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

Paramedics determined that Mrs. Griffith Joyner had died in her sleep, although the cause of death is under investigation.

Primo Nebiolo, the head of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, track's international federation, said he knew Mrs. Griffith Joyner had ``some serious heart problems in recent months,'' although one of her brothers, Weldon Pitts, said she had shown no sign of illness recently.

Mrs. Griffith Joyner had suffered a seizure two years ago on a flight from California to St. Louis, and was hospitalized for a day.

Her family did not disclose the ailment.

At the time of her death, Mrs. Griffith Joyner held world records in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

``She was one of the great characters of track and field, a personality who marked a generation of athletes with her performances and individuality,'' Nebiolo said.

The seventh of 11 children, Mrs. Florence Griffith was born Dec. 21, 1959. She grew up in Watts, the black neighborhood in Los Angeles that was virtually destroyed in the 1965 race riots.

A runner since age 7, Mrs. Griffith Joyner first drew international attention when she placed fourth in the 200 meters at the 1983 world championships. The next year, she won a silver medal in the 200 at the Los Angeles Olympics.

By 1986, however, her track career had stalled, and she went into semiretirement, working in a bank and as a beautician.

She returned to serious training a year later, under the guidance of her husband, a 1984 triple-jump gold medalist.

She took up vigorous weight training and studied videotapes of male champions such as Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis.

As the 1988 Seoul Olympics approached, Mrs. Griffith Joyner had built such a powerful physique, others voiced suspicions that she had used steroids in her training. She denied using illegal drugs and never tested positive for their use.

The woman who now took the track was all but unbeatable.

The technically flawed sprinter who had been remembered for little more than her flashy fingernails at the 1984 Olympic Games was an absolute show-stopper at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, turning in the four fastest women's 100-meter performances of all time.

Mrs. Griffith Joyner began her quest to make the U.S. team for Seoul with a wind-aided time of 10.60 in her first qualifying heat.

In the quarterfinal heat, 2 1/2 hours later, she blasted through the 100 meters in 10.49 seconds, not only a world record but also a performance that made the former global standard of 10.76 pale into insignificance by comparision.

Since then, no one has even broken 10.60. At Seoul, she won the gold medal in a wind-aided 10.54.

She then smashed the world 200 record in the Olympic final, clocking 21.34. American Marion Jones, with a 21.62 at the World Cup in South Africa this month, is the only other woman to run the 200 in under 21.70.

Mrs. Griffith Joyner also won a gold medal in the 4x100-meter relay and just missed a fourth gold medal when the U.S. team finished second in the 4x400 relay, which she anchored.

``I remember her from '88, just taking the world by storm and surprising all of us,'' said Evelyn Ashford, who held the 100-meter record before Mrs. Griffith Joyner broke it. ``In '88 . . . she was the one we all had to beat.''

As fleet as she was on the track, she was as stunning off it.

At the Olympic trials, she wore a variety of sexy, one-leg Lycra leotards that she designed in lime green, royal blue, purple, black and gold.

One eye-catching outfit was a purple bodysuit with a turquoise bikini brief over it, but with nothing on her left leg, a design she referred to as a ``one-legger.''

At the Olympics, she painted three of her fingernails red, white and blue, and she painted a fourth gold to signify her goal.

Craig Masback, executive director of USA Track & Field, said FloJo's records ``might last into the 21st century,'' but that should not be the only thing for which she is remembered.

``She revolutionized the way athletes dress,'' he said. ``Her flair and everything else she did captured the imagination.''

Mrs. Griffith Joyner retired from track after the 1988 Olympics and continued to coach her husband.

She also worked as a clothing designer. Among her clients was the National Basketball Association's Indiana Pacers, whose players from 1990 through 1997 wore uniforms she designed.

In 1993, Mrs. Griffith Joyner was named chairwoman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

``We were dazzled by her speed, humbled by her talent, and captivated by her style,'' President Clinton said in a statement. ``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.''

One of her many admirers was John Smith, one of the premier sprint coaches in the world.

``She was very good with kids,'' Smith said. ``Whenever she came to see me, she brought a FloJo doll for my daughter, Noel.''

Smith also appreciated her discipline and personality.

``She worked very hard,'' he said. ``She was relentless. She never stopped. Besides being beautiful, she had a work ethic, bar none. The beauty of her was that she never changed. She was the same FloJo before [she became a star], and she was the same FloJo after.

``We're going to miss her. She made a great contribution to track and field, like Wilma Rudolph did before her and like Marion Jones is doing now.''

Nebiolo, the president of the world governing body for track and field, was among those who tried yesterday to succinctly sum up Mrs. Griffith Joyner's impact. He did so as well as anyone.

``I will never forget this extraordinary athlete who stunned the world in Seoul 10 years ago with her amazing sprints and spectacular outfits,'' Nebiolo said. ``Sadly, her life has passed as rapidly as her races.''

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