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She overcame an insecure childhood to become an Olympic champion and world-record holder.

Julie Cart
Times Staff Writer

Few had any inkling of it, but Delorez Florence Griffith Joyner--the fabulous FloJo--was painfully shy and deeply insecure. Underneath her skintight running suits and her lavishly manicured nails lived a little girl who stoically bore the taunts of other children and resolved to show the world that, some day, she would live her dreams.

Griffith Joyner had wild, unlikely dreams growing up in the Jordan Downs housing projects in Watts. Her visions of international fame and high accomplishment seemed as fantastic as they were unrealistic for a girl with 10 brothers and sisters in a family supported by a divorced mother.

But little Dee Dee, as she was called, refused to give up her aspirations, even as they were ridiculed by others, even as adults implored her to rein in her longings. No one could convince Florence that she would not be the artist, beautician, poet and designer that she saw herself being. One day in school, her teacher asked her what she wanted to be. "Everything," she said. "I want to be everything."

At first, she made the mistake of announcing to other children what a fabulous life she was preparing for. When they laughed and made her cry, she learned to keep to herself, to hold her tears until she got home.

"Eventually, I got strong enough that I didn't cry when I got home," Griffith Joyner told The Times in 1988. "I learned that when you try to do right and you try to please everybody, they will still laugh at you and they will still talk about you."

Florence, who always had a sense of being different, decided early on not to be ashamed of her uniqueness, but to make it her signature. She went to school in all manner of unusual dress. She wore different colored socks. She twirled her hair into elaborate piled-up styles. Dissatisfied with the limited spectrum available in her mother's nail polish, Florence mixed crushed crayons into clear polish to create her own shades.

Because her mother did not allow the Griffith children to roam freely in the dangerous neighborhood, the brothers and sisters became their own, tight play unit. That meant Florence played with her brothers under their rules. She played basketball and football. They had footraces in the street. They had handstand contests. She won.

Florence played with her brothers and their friends until they were reminded that she was a girl and not welcome. Undaunted, she spent hours in her mother's closet, trying on dresses and stockings and oversized shoes, acting out her future famous life in her fine clothes.

On paper, Florence designed gowns and delicate dresses that she would wear to the fabulous parties that, in her dreams, she attended.

When the children visited their father, who lived in the Mojave Desert, they returned with exaggerated diction. Robert Griffith drilled his children in "proper" English. Florence always spoke softly and distinctly, using her meticulous enunciation to disguise a slight lisp.

Other children made fun of the fancy way she spoke, interpreting her efforts to better herself as meaning she thought herself better than others. She was branded a snobby girl, and her shyness would forever be seen as aloofness.

Florence filed these hurts along with the others and saved the pain until she needed it, when it became her motivation and inspiration.

It drove her as she competed in track and field. As before, others outlined for Florence the parameters of her ability and the probable scope of her achievement. She had speed, to be sure, but she could not harness it out of the starting blocks. Without a start, a sprinter is doomed to racing only the middle and end of the race. Really, coaches told her, you are not going to make it.

At Cal State Northridge, Griffith Joyner did not even make the first rung of sprinters. She was tossed a few crumbs--positions on relay teams--but no one saw in her what she knew were there, a gold medal and a world record. Her persistence in the face of what others viewed as highly limited ability was remarkable.

As her friends made the 1980 Olympic team and traveled in Europe, Florence stayed home, punishing her body in training. She would do it her own way. She would show them.

"I have been running since I was 7," she said. "I was trying to restructure the way my body was made instead of trying to master the way I ran. I would get so frustrated with my starts in practices that I would just cry. When I ran, I wouldn't even try to get out of the blocks, I would just run."

Eventually, coaches discovered that Griffith Joyner's athletic gift was not to be altered. It was hers, intact, as she had always seen it in her dreams. Once freed to be herself, Florence flourished.

Finally secure in her ability, she transformed into her alter ego, FloJo. The little girl flew out of the closet and flounced about in her grown-up clothes. If perfect elocution could obscure a speech impediment, a uniform she described as an "athletic negligee" might distract from her sub-par start. If sprinters were not to wear their fingernails long, lest they interfere with the mechanics of the start, then FloJo would cultivate hers to an extravagant length and decorate them.

The outlandish designs she had scribbled on bits of paper when she was child were carried over into the figure-revealing outfits Griffith Joyner introduced to the world in 1988. She was a sensation, both in how she ran and how she looked doing it. Most competitors were speechless. Those who weren't echoed the catty comments she'd been hearing all her life.

Her accomplishments allowed Griffith Joyner to tune out the negatives. She had done it, just as she always said she would, and, at last, she allowed herself a prolonged I-told-you-so moment. She retired, still holding that thought.

As are most gifted people, Florence Griffith Joyner was a deep, complicated person. There was little Dee Dee, biting her lip to hold back tears. There was FloJo, who flaunted her individuality and demanded the world take her dreams seriously.

Even after she had set world records and won multiple gold medals, there was a defiance in her winning. She still had to defend herself.

"I haven't changed and I'm not going to change. The world record is not going to change me," she said. "I'm not going to allow people to change me. My family has always believed in me and now all those people are saying they knew I could do it. Funny, I never heard that before. I was always the one who knew I could do it. I prayed for it. I worked so hard for it. I knew one day this type of thing could happen."

There will be a candlelight vigil for Florence Griffith Joyner tonight at 7 at Leimert Park, located on Crenshaw Boulevard and Vernon Avenue.

julie.cart@latimes.com

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