Florence Griffith-Joyner lived to be one of her generation's most outstanding track athletes. Unfortunately, many believed her to abuse performance-enhancing drugs, a dark shadow that followed her even in death.
Florence Griffith-Joyner, commonly known as Flo-Jo, knew nothing but success in the track and field Olympics. Throughout her career, she dominated the sport, becoming the undefeated champion in the races she ran.
Flo-Jo was born Florence Delores Griffith in Los Angeles, California. She was the seventh child of seamstress Florence and electronic engineer Robert Griffith. Her mother raised them with a firm hand, insisting on early bedtimes and restricting them from watching television on school nights.
World and Olympic athletics champion Florence Griffith-Joyner of the United States with her husband Olympic triple jump champion of 1984 Al Joyner on 5th April 1988 in Los Angeles, California, United States | Source: Getty Images
At only seven, Griffith joined a sprint race as part of a Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation and won, a stint that started her off on her career in track. At Jordan High School, where she attended, she set records in sprints and long jump.
She graduated high school in 1978 and joined California State University, where she continued setting records under the tutelage of Coach Bob Kersee.
When Kersee got a coaching job at the University of California at Los Angeles, Griffith followed him there. In 1980, she qualified for the Olympic trials, and for the next four years, she hovered near the top echelon of female sprinters.
Florence Griffith-Joyner of the USA during the Dairy Crest International Athletics meet at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, circa 1988 | Source: Getty Images
In 1982, she bagged the women's 200 meters at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship and became the women's 400 meters champion the following year.
Oblivious, while she was making amazing feats at UCLA, a man too insecure about speaking to her was hiding behind the shadows, secretly admiring her from a distance.
AN OLYMPIC LOVE STORY
Al Joyner was 20 when he first laid eyes on the 20-year-old Griffith at the U.S. Olympics trials in Eugene, Oregon. She was at a sign-in table, and at first, he thought she was a trainer. He gathered up the courage to ask for her name and, in turn, told her his.
Athletes Florence Griffith-Joyner and Al Joyner at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City on October 17, 1988 | Source: Getty Images
When he saw her warming up for the 100 meters the following day, he asked around and learned she was a UCLA sprinter, and soon, she would be classmates with his sister Jackie Joyner. He rushed to look for his sister, who was also warming up for a race, and told her:
"Jackie, there's this girl from UCLA named Florence Griffith, and you need to find out if she has a boyfriend."
Athletes Florence Griffith-Joyner and husband Al Joyner on September 29 1989 | Source: Getty Images
Griffith did have a boyfriend — 800-meter runner David Mack, and subdued, Joyner retreated from his quest but pasted a photo of Griffith on his bedroom wall at Arkansas State. He recalled:
"I had a girlfriend back in Arkansas who said, 'Why do you have a picture of this girl?' And I said, 'That's the girl I'm going to marry.'"
Before the '84 U.S. Olympic trials, Joyner flew to UCLA to prepare alongside Kersee and other athletes, vowing to himself not to be distracted by Griffith's beauty again. However, he couldn't help falling in love with her.
Olympic gold medalist Florence Griffith-Joyner and her husband fellow gold medalist Al Joyner | Source: Getty Images
At the time, Griffith was dating Olympic hurdler Greg Foster, but his interest was more in other girls than Griffith, which irked Joyner to the core. He made it his mission to always "accidentally" bump into Griffith, but Griffith paid him no mind even then.
As he prepared to return to Arkansas, he bumped into Griffith and asked her if she'd show him around Los Angeles if he ever came back, and Griffith agreed. He kept in touch with her through cards, and when he flew back to prepare for the '88 Olympics, he reminded her of her promise to show him around.
She said she had not forgotten, and soon after, they began spending almost all their time together. They became serious girlfriend and boyfriend and even made "All My Life" by K-Ci and Jojo their song. One evening Griffith called and asked Joyner out, and that's when Joyner decided he would propose.
World and Olympic athletics champion Florence Griffith-Joyner with her husband Olympic triple jump champion of 1984 Al Joyner on April 5 1988 in Los Angeles, California, United States | Source: Getty Images
On July 7, 1987, Joyner booked a limo and reserved seats at the trendy Brown Derby restaurant, but when he arrived to pick her up, she said she'd have made do with a meal at McDonald's. He begged her to get in and ride with him, and when the song "Stand By Me" played on the radio, Joyner leaned in and said:
"You're the most beautiful, straightforward woman I know. Will you marry me?"
And she said, "Yes!" They set their wedding date for after the Olympics in late 1988, but in October, an earthquake-hit Los Angeles, and Griffith, grabbing Joyner's shirt, declared they should marry as fast as possible because she did not want to die unwed.
Athletes Florence Griffith-Joyner and husband Al Joyner walk off the track during the Olympic Games in Seoul South Korea in 1988 | Source: Getty Images
Nine days after the earthquake, they had their impromptu wedding. The bride wore the same Halloween dress she had worn during Joyner's Halloween visits.
JOYNER HELPED HIS WIFE BAG GOLD MEDALS
After marrying the gold-winning Joyner, Griffith, who always came second in her races, swore to do better. She set higher goals for herself, and since she still had her bank job, she would train at night. She said:
"When you have been second best for so long, you can either accept it or try to become the best. I made the decision to become the best in 1988."
Athletes Florence Griffith-Joyner carrying the US flad after winning the 1988 Olympics | Source: Getty Images
Joyner became her trainer, stepping up with positive reinforcement. He made her eat well and go to bed early, and the results showed when she shattered the 10:76 world record time with her impressive 10:49.
She followed her win by beating Olympic gold medalist Evelyn Ashford in the 200 meters with a record time of 21:77. But she wasn't done. She breezed through the preliminary rounds of the 100 meters with a splendid 10:62, beating Ashford's previous record of 10:97.
Athletes Florence Griffith-Joyner and husband Al Joyner holding the "Jesse Owens International Awards Trophy" presented to her on February 21 1989 in New York City | Source: Getty Images
And when she set out for the 200-meter race in Seoul, she recorded a stunning 21:34 effortlessly, even flashing a smile as she cruised through the finish line. However, her victory did not appeal to many.
While she should have enjoyed the fruits of her hard work, rumors that she was on steroids and performance-enhancing drugs started following her everywhere. Luckily, every test she took came back negative. While everyone around her claimed she was clean, her fellow athletes and fans castigated her.
Her goal had bever been to be a professional sprinter. She only wanted to win one gold medal. After being named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1988 and winning the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete, she hung her running coat in 1989, aged 29, and went back to fashion and designing.
Athletes Florence Griffith-Joyner with her daughter Mary | Source: Getty Images
Soon after retiring, Griffith began buying baby clothes, and a year later, the happy couple found out they were expecting a baby. Joyner remembers Griffith was glowing, and on November 13, 1990, she gave birth to a little girl she named Mary to honor Joyner's late mom.
THE SUDDEN DEATH OF A CHAMPION
Griffith and her husband Joyner enjoyed a good life. Their daughter was keen to follow in their athletic footsteps. But their fairy-tale was cut short in September 1998, when Griffith met her untimely demise.
The previous evening, Joyner had stayed late at his office reviewing an endorsement for a hair product. When he came home, he found Griffith curled up in bed with Mary, and after telling his wife that he loved her, Griffith said, "I love you too," and Joyner went back downstairs.
Athletes Florence Griffith-Joyner poses with her medals on September 25, 1988 at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in Seoul South Korea | Source: Getty Images
He often craved ice cream, and he knew if his wife, who had been teasing him about his weight, smelled it on his breath, he would be in trouble. So he spent the night on the couch downstairs.
The following morning, the ringing alarm clock in their bedroom woke him up. Griffith was not an early bird, and she would often let the alarm clock ring for a bit. However, this was a school day, and Mary would run late for school if she did not get up fast.
With that in mind, Joyner rushed upstairs and found Mary fast asleep with her feet on her mother, who lay face down. Joyner rustled Griffith, and when she still wouldn't budge, he turned her over and came face to face with the most horrifying sight he ever saw. Griffith was wide-eyed yet motionless.
Olympic gold medalist Al Joyner | Source: Getty Images
Joyner screamed and woke Mary up. Thinking fast, he told his daughter to rush downstairs and call Griffith's mom. He remained upstairs, calling 9-1-1. They asked him to perform CPR, and being a former lifeguard, he quickly did that, but Griffith had no pulse, and howling, he began speaking to her, saying:
"This is not the way the story is supposed to end. I'm supposed to go before you. You're supposed to watch Mary grow up, see what she's going to turn out to be."
The investigation into her death discovered she had a history of seizures and had died from asphyxiation due to an epileptic seizure. Later tests showed three possible causes of death — positional asphyxia, epileptiform attack, and cavernous angioma — all fancy words to say she suffocated on her pillow during an epileptic seizure.
Al Joyner, husband of the Florence Griffith Joyner, and daughter Mary at September in Lake Forest, California following the death of his wife. | Source: Getty Images
Sadly, even after her death, media houses continued speculating that the use of performance-enhancing drugs and steroids was the cause of her death. Even as skeptics continued to blame steroids for her untimely death, the rumors that tracked her in life continued chasing her in her death.
FINDING HIS MRS. RIGHT
Griffith's funeral was nothing short of a spectacle. As her casket, adorned with the Olympian flag and white flowers, stood at the podium of the Saddleback Community Church, over 1500 mourners joined in the service.
Al Joyner, husband of the late olympic gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner, keeps her rings close to his heart, strung on his gold chain. Photo taken at his Mission Viejo home Oct. 21, 1998. | Source: Getty Images
Other track and field Olympians, including Johnny Gray, Kevin Young, Willie Gault, Gail Devers, and Bruce Jenner, mourned Griffith while a defeated Joyner addressed his wife, saying he missed and loved her, adding:
"One thing about Florence Griffith Joyner that not everybody saw was she gave unconditional love. She was my dream. I stayed focused on her for seven years until she looked my way."
Al Joyner, husband of the Florence Griffith Joyner, with his sister Jackie and daughter Mary at the funeral services of the Olypmic gold medalist 26 September in Lake Forest, California. | Source: Getty Images
In the initial hours after Griffith's demise, her family wanted to take Mary away, but she insisted she wanted to stay with her dad, a decision Joyner says saved his life. He says he'd thought of taking his life to see if he'd catch up with his wife, but seeing his daughter gave him a reason to continue living. He mused:
"No telling what I would've done."
Four years after his wife's death, Joyner was still in mourning. He appeared constantly tired, and friends often urged him to mingle with ladies. He remembered his wife begging him to remarry if anything happened to her.
Olympic gold medalist Al Joyner and Alisha Biehn at the Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter March 30, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. | Source: Getty Images
And just like Griffith had predicted that Joyner would know when he met "the one," he knew when he met Alisha Biehn that she was the one for him. They married in June 2003.