“Fastest living woman!” the commentator was booming as Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson, arms flailing, knees flailing, raced down the track to win gold at the IAAF World Championships with an incredible time of 21:45. She would still be the second fastest woman in history. Fastest was the great Florence Griffith Joyner, aka Flo Jo, who lived a fast, dreamy life as a runner, free spirit, and exuberant fashionista to whom famed singer Beyonce nodded her homage when she once wore a “Flo-Jo” costume, and who died tragically young, in her sleep after an epileptic fit, a death she had for a time anticipated. They say it’s better to die young than to fade, and unfortunately Flo Jo became his most famous icon. But boy could she walk. Your life is quite a story.
— World Athletics (@WorldAthletics) July 22, 2022
They were dogged by controversy. Nobody could catch them on the track; tried a lot. Her fans would say she ran like the wind; Critics said she was wind assisted. Her power was celebrated around the world; Some whispered it was drug fueled. Her style made the world gaga; The haters mocked the six-inch, glowing fingernails. Beyonce wore her bodysuit; They said Flo-Jo’s career has been a case of style over substance. She retired in 87′ to have a child; They said she ran away fearing drug tests. She has never failed a single drug test. It was tested eleven times in Seoul alone and nothing illegal was found. She had premonitions of death, knew only death could catch her; and it did.
But her final act was her biggest posthumous run. With her death and second marriage, a promise she had wrested from him during her premonitions, her daughter Mary had begun to drift in life. As a seven-year-old, a broken husband with her father, it was Mary who called those close and dear to tell of her mother’s death. The emptiness of motherhood caught up with her and she drifted into her teens, distant and blues-addicted.
Then her father brought out Flo-Jo’s letters to her – which read “not to be opened until you’re 16” – and Mary’s zest for life returned. She became a singer-songwriter, performer and sang at the 2012 Olympic track and field trials. However, it is her mother who was the rock star of athletics.
Incredibly, Flo Jo went to work at a bank in 1985 after winning 84 gold at the Olympics. Training and the life of a runner had taken a back seat, and her main occupation was styling—manicuring nails, designing clothes. She had started out as a bank clerk before collecting her fortune on the railroad tracks, but had retreated back to the gray world of banking. She did her friends’ nails and hair at night and charged $45 to $200 for intricate braids.
Overweight (her trainer would say she was 60 pounds heavier) but unencumbered by the world, she lived her life as her trainers, husband Al Joyner and brother-in-law Bob Kersee, encouraged her to take action. Her husband Al, whom she met in 1980 and married in 1987, was an Olympic triple jump champion and brother of Olympic heptathlon and long jump legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Marriage drove her to return to the tracks. She would train at 4am. Moved by Canada’s Ben Johnson’s power start at the 1987 World Championships, Al made her step up her strength training. She was reportedly able to squat 320 pounds while weighing 130 pounds. “To run like a man, you have to train like a man,” she used to say.
But before the epic Seoul 88 race came the fashionista. “Dress well to look good. Look good to feel good. And feel good when you run fast!” she would say. Six-inch acrylic nails popped up, hair flowed, faces glistened with makeup, and their custom skating kits were all the rage—from single-leg bodysuits, hooded speed skating bodysuits, color-block bikini bottoms, detailed lace onesies, and asymmetric ones outfits. Flamboyance had a middle name: Flo Jo.
Fashion sense was innate. She could knit, sew and crochet. From the age of 7 she flirted with her own designer clothes. In the late 70’s, early 80’s, before she became famous, she ran in New York and caught the attention of famous running coach Pat Connolly, who once wrote in NYT about that moment: “She was so pretty, my eyes often followed her, as she jogged by. I had to suppress the urge to engage her in conversation, to ask if she was a singer. There weren’t any outrageous fingernails or hairstyles; no one-legged tights; no makeup layers; no bulging muscles to take strong mechanical steps. What I saw was an intensity in her dark eyes, the kind that comes from hunger; the kind that showed this young woman had heart.”
And her heart was free and quirky.
“You can wear anything you want if you’re ready to go when the guns go off. You will still run fast. Makeup won’t stop you. The outfit won’t stop you,” is one of her famous quotes. In 1988, she began wearing so-called “one-legs,” which came about after she accidentally cut one leg shorter than the other. “I started laughing and she said, ‘I’m wearing this.’ And that’s how it started,” Joyner said. She stuck little motivational notes all over her house. The timing she wanted to win a race quoted from the Bible’s 23rd Psalm and her favorite was “I can because I believe I can”.
Training raged on ahead of Seoul. Likewise her love for clothes. She packed over 100 outfits, her husband said with a laugh. She painted her six-inch fingernails on Fleek red, blue, gold, and white. She was ready to walk into dreams of athletic kids with ambitions, girls who wanted to empower themselves to be themselves like tennis star Serene Williams, wide-eyed kids, and admiring, amused adults.
“I spend about 15 minutes putting on my makeup,” she once told The Boston Globe. “I spend a lot longer preparing for a race.”
On a jet fuel
On July 16, 1988, at the Indianapolis Trials before Seoul, the jaws of the superstar athletes and coaches dropped in awe. In the 100 m, she was behind Evelyn Ashword’s record of 10.76. Her husband kept urging her that she could do it since 10.5 was his timing and she beats him in training. When the clock stopped after the run, the world stopped in awe: 10.49 a.m., it shone.
“Nobody can run that fast. The heat must be doing something to the electronics,” ABC announcer Marty Liquori said. Omega Timing examined the anemometer and timing system and found no malfunction. Still, many, including her husband, believe it was wind-assisted. Later, the Association of Athletics Statisticians would star it: “Probably heavily wind assisted, but recognized as a world record”. The next day, in the final, she set another record of 10.61 seconds.
“If you go back and watch the movie of their running mechanics from ’84 and then look back at ’88, that’s the difference. That is the secret. Hard work, sleep right, eat right. And then she had a special gift from God,” Al Joyner told BBC Sport. “I said, ‘Honey, get out there and make ’em think you’re into kerosene’.”
In Seoul, she ran the 100m in 10.54 (wind-assisted), throwing her arms in the last five meters and a bright smile spreading across her face. One of the great sports photographs of our time.
In the 200m semi-final she broke a nine-year-old world record before breaking it again in less than two hours in the final with 21.34 seconds. It’s been 34 years and no one has caught up with her.
Death did. In 1998, at the age of 38, Flo Jo died in her sleep from a rare disease and lesion in her brain that caused seizures, a problem (cavernous angioma) that had surfaced only after her daughter was born.
Husband Al dialed 911 and yelled, “My wife is gone. My wife is gone.” They asked him to do CPR, but he couldn’t find a pulse. He later recalled speaking to her: “I don’t want the story to end like this. I should go before you You’re supposed to watch Mary grow up…’ Just then Mary ran into the room, ‘What’s wrong with Mommy?’ The paramedics just arrived and soon pronounced her dead. In layman’s terms, she had choked to death in her sleep.
The paramedics would give him her wedding ring and a broken fingernail. Critics still grumbled about the effects of drugs. The extensive autopsy and toxicology tests conducted over two days left them snubbed: they showed no use of any steroids or performance-enhancing drugs in their system. “She took the ultimate drug test. I told them to test for everything,” Al Espn said. “And there was nothing, and there was never anything.” Nothing but a great spirit.