There are three reasons I want to do a Black History Month post about Florence Griffith Joyner: I purposefully stayed away from featuring athletes, because sometimes it seems like that’s the area most people focus on when considering the accomplishments of black Americans (and the approach starts to feel a little too reminiscent of seeing black Americans as property and not people), but there is no denying that there are many amazing black athletes who deserve to be recognized; Flo Jo is one of the athletes I recall most from my youth; This photo is everything.
Florence Griffith Joyner was a track and field athlete. The public lovingly referred to her as Flo Jo…maybe we had to shorten her name because she was so fast. She was, and remains, the fastest woman in the world. In 1988, she set the world records for the 100m (10.49 seconds) and 200m (21.34 seconds), which are unbeaten three decades later.
Flo Jo was born in Los Angeles in 1959 to an electrical engineer and a seamstress. Her mother moved her and the kids to live in a public housing complex in Watts. This was around the time of the Watts Rebellion (most often called the Watts Riots), brought about because it was an illegally segregated town with a lack of community resources and high rates of horrendous police brutality against black civilians.
Her nickname in her family was Dee-Dee. She had aspirations to be an athlete, artist, beautician, poet, and designer. One day in school, her teacher asked her what she wanted to be. “Everything. I want to be everything.”
She started running at 7 years old, chasing jackrabbits. In elementary school, she joined the Sugar Ray Robinson Organization, running in track meets on weekends. When she was a young teen, she won the Jesse Owens National Youth Games two years in a row. In high school, she set records in sprinting and long jump.
After high school, she competed at Cal State Northridge, training under the sprint coach Bob Kersee. She helped the team win the national championship in 1978. Unable to afford school, she dropped out and became a bank teller. Coach Kersee became an assistant coach at UCLA, and secured a scholarship for Flo Jo. In 1980, she enrolled at the University of California – Los Angeles, where she earned a BA in psychology in 1982. Her junior year she won the NCAA 200m title.
That same year, she met her future husband, triple jumper Al Joyner, at the US Olympic trials in Eugene, OR. (They married in 1987, making Flo Jo the sister-in-law to another all-time-great track and field athlete, Jackie Joyner-Kersee.) At those trials, Flo Jo qualified for the Olympics, but that was the year the US and 65 other countries boycotted because they were hosted in Russia, who had just invaded Afghanistan.
In 1983, Flo Jo placed fourth in the 200m sprint at the first World Championship in Athletics. In 1984, she qualified for the Olympics in the 200m with the second fastest time at the US Olympic Trials. Flo Jo then won a silver medal in the 200m at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Disappointed with her performance, she went into semi-retirement. In 1987, she left Coach Kersee and began training with her husband, focusing a lot on weight training. Because she bulked up, she was falsely accused of taking steroids. Those rumors followed her even past her death, despite drug tests always coming up negative. #HatersGonnaHate
Then came the 1988 Olympics. At the trials, she set the world record in the 100m. At the games, her 100m was just shy of her record, at 10.54 seconds, but it beat the silver medalist by 0.30 seconds. She set the world record of 21.56 seconds in the 200m, then went on to break her own record by winning the final at 21.34 seconds. She also ran with the relay teams for the 4X100m (winning gold) and 4X400m (winning silver). This was the first internationally-rated 4X400m relay for Flo Jo. All-in-all, she won four medals that year, which, at the time, was the second most for any female track and field athlete in history. (Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals in 1948.)
It was hard not to take notice of Flo Jo. Besides her amazing speed, she caught the eye of the public because of her colorful style – brightly colored asymmetrical spandex outfits, bright make-up, and bejeweled and sparkling nails. She had designed her own track uniforms since high school.
“Dress good to look good. Look good to feel good. And feel good to run fast!” – Florence Griffith Joyner
Flo Jo retired from track in 1989, and then started a foundation for underprivileged children. She received the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the US. She was named The Associated Press’ “Female Athlete of the Year” and Track and Field magazine’s “Athlete of the Year.” In 1995, she was inducted into the US Track & Field Hall of Fame. In 2000, the elementary school she attended was renamed Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School. From 1993 to 1995 she was the co-chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.
Following her athletic career, she began to suffer from seizures. In 1998, at the age of 38, Flo Jo died in her sleep of asphyxiation brought on by a severe epileptic seizure.
Flo Jo was also an artist and painter. Her work has been on display as part the Art of The Olympians (AOTO). She is one of two posthumous members of AOTO, the other being the founder and Olympian, Al Oerter.
Watch her win gold in the 100m
Winning gold in the 200m