Florence Griffith Joyner in 1996 (AP Photo / Susan Sterner)
People spoke about her like an expensive car: sleek, gorgeous, and above all, fast. Even her name – Florence Griffith Joyner – was revved up to the faster Flo-Jo. The extraordinary athlete and exotic beauty died 15 years ago today at just 38.
Two years ago, on the anniversary of her death, her daughter Mary Joyner (who competed on America’s Got Talent) posted a tribute to her mom:
Griffith Joyner was the first American woman to win four medals in one Olympics, bringing home three golds and a silver from the 1988 summer games in Seoul, South Korea. The record she set in those games for the 100-meter dash – 10.49 seconds – still stands.
Writing for Sports Illustrated, Merrell Noden said, "Griffith Joyner was like a gaudy comet flashing across the sky. In mid-1988, in the short span of 75 days, she transformed herself into FloJo, a flesh-and-blood action hero who dazzled the world with her six-inch long fingernails and sexy running attire, scorching tracks and retinas with her line of skin-tight negligées, some of which she dubbed 'one-leggers. '"
She often said her inspiration was Wilma Rudolph, who won three Olympic gold medals in the 1960 Olympics and was considered the fastest woman in the world. Rudolph returned the compliment, saying, "For a long time, we've been thought of as 'jocks.' Florence brings in the glamour."
Griffith Joyner's glamour seemed to come naturally. Less than thrilled about high school running uniforms, she began making her own, using the sewing skills she had learned from her mother to make clothes first for Barbie dolls and then for herself. "That was such a joyful time for me," she said, "doing something creative that we both loved." Her penchant for style was also manifested in her wild mane of hair and her multi-colored enameled fingernails, said to be six inches long, which stood out against her Flo-rescent running ensembles.
Despite growing up in the rough and tough section of Los Angeles known as Watts, Griffith Joyner said her childhood was happy because of the love and support of her large family. She was born Dec. 21, 1959, the seventh of 11 children, and ran track at Jordan High School, where, according to USA Track & Field, she anchored the relay team that posted the nation's fastest time of the year. As a student at California State University at Northridge she was coached by Bob Kersee, who later became her brother-in-law. She dropped out for a time and worked as a bank teller to help support her family, but returned to school after Kersee found financial support for her. When Kersee became head coach at UCLA, Griffith Joyner followed him there, graduating with a degree in psychology in 1982.
She won one medal in the 1984 Olympics, but it was at Seoul where she really shone, taking home four medals and two world records. Though often plagued by suspicions of drug use, Griffith Joyner was repeatedly tested and always passed.
In 1987 she married Al Joyner, the 1984 Olympic triple jump champion, and retired from competitive running two years later. She went on to design uniforms for the Indiana Pacers and to write Running for Dummies with John Hanc, with a foreword by sister-in-law Jackie Joyner-Kersee. In 1993 President Clinton named her co-chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness.
Griffith Joyner's unexpected death in 1998 was investigated by Orange County authorities, who concluded she had died from suffocation due to a severe epileptic seizure. The city of Mission Viejo, Calif. dedicated a park in her honor.
"We were dazzled by her speed, humbled by her talent, and captivated by her style," President Clinton said in a statement following her death. "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."
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief." Find her on Google+.