Florence Griffith Joyner Has Grown Up : Runner Who Was Always Laughed At Is Having the Last Laugh
There was once a little girl who was always teased by other children. She didn’t fix her hair like anyone else. Her clothes were odd. She wore mismatched socks. They laughed at her.
They laughed at the furniture in the little girl’s house. They made fun of the way she talked. They laughed at her pet snake and the way she rode to the store on a unicycle, or walked on her hands. They laughed at her because she was different.
The little girl knew the other children were laughing at her. She pretended it didn’t matter. She never let them see her cry.
She was almost always very quiet. She learned to play by herself. She yearned to be a grown-up so that no children would laugh at her.
That has happened. She is Florence Griffth Joyner, now 28. She holds the world record in the women’s 100-meter dash. She is happily married. She is going to the Olympics, again. The laughter has subsided.
Al Joyner is at the ironing board in the kitchen.
The Florences, mother and daughter, are upstairs going through the Florence-getting-ready-to-go-out routine. It has been more than an hour. Clothing can be tailored in less time.
Today it has been CBS-TV at 9 a.m., an interview with a Paris magazine and soon a spot on the “Hour Magazine” TV show, the cause of all the primping. After that, more CBS.
Al is smiling to a guest, pointedly ignoring the noises coming down through the ceiling. He offers a wedding photo album, a white brocade book fringed with lace. He smiles. Any minute, his wife will sweep down the stairs, and they will go and they will not be late again.
Mother Florence sweeps down the stairs and sits quietly in the living room.
After a time, there is a call requesting Al, then another for mother Florence.
The album shows a formal wedding at a roadside wedding chapel in Las Vegas. It appears to be a traditional wedding in all respects, with the white gown, the tuxedoed men and guests throwing rice.
It is the sort of wedding that Griffith Joyner might have imagined for herself when she was a little girl growing up in the Jordan Downs project in Watts. Then she was Dee Dee, called that to distinguish her from her mother. Their middle names are also close. Mother Florence’s is Delores, daughter Florence’s Delorez.
Little Dee Dee hardly needed the nickname, though, to set her apart from her 10 brothers and sisters.
“When she was an infant, a tiny baby, I thought of her as a ballerina,” mother Florence said. “She was light on her feet and very delicate and flighty. She was very much like a ballerina.”
Dee Dee loved nothing more than sneaking into her mother’s room and trying on grown-up clothes. She would imagine what it would be like to fit into these fine things. Dee Dee loved everything about the way she saw adults living.
“I couldn’t wait until I grew up,” she said. “I used to look at my mom’s stockings and put them on with her high heels and mess with my hair. We weren’t allowed to watch much television, but when I did, I used to love the love stories and watch all the fancy ladies. I’ve always played grown-up and wanted to dress up like that. I’d put on my own clothes and turn them this way and that. I was always playing house. I played the mother.”
When Dee Dee was old enough to wear nail polish, she was not satisfied with the color selections. She thought about this problem for a bit, then took her crayons and crushed them under her heel and mixed the colorful bits into clear polish.
“It never worked,” she said. “The Crayolas would come out all over my fingernails. It never stopped me from trying.”
Trying was the Griffith family hallmark. The project where the Griffiths lived then was not the gang turf it is today. Still, mother Florence never allowed her children to roam freely among the drug users and small-time hoods. When the Griffith kids went out, they were their own gang.
“I wasn’t worried about them,” mother Florence said. “I don’t let the influences of other people interfere with what I wanted to do for them. As I told them, I am captain of the ship.”
The Griffith children spent a lot of time playing inside the house. They were encouraged to read, to color or paint. But when they were outside, it was competition that drove them.
“I was always doing something physical,” Florence Griffith Joyner said. “My brothers and I used to have handstand contests. We’d walk around the projects on our hands and see who could get the farthest. I was always playing football with them, basketball or racing in the street. I used to do that until their friends would say, ‘Get her out of here, she’s a girl.’
“I was very influenced by my brothers. Whatever they tried, I had to. I was always saying, ‘I can do it.’ They’d say, ‘No you can’t.’
“But I’d get up there, and maybe I’d fall the first time, but I’d always try. I wanted to be able to play with them. If you could do it, they would let you come around. If you couldn’t, they would tell you to go home to mama.”
At home, mama was as likely to encourage Dee Dee to play with the boys if she wanted to. Mother Florence was not one to limit the scope of her children’s dreams, even if others did not approve.
“I am an individual,” she said. “I taught my children to be individuals. The idea was not to wear the same thing as everybody else wore. We all had to go off and find different shoes. The girls all had their own taste. In other words, we didn’t keep up with the Joneses.”
Such independence usually comes at a price. For the Griffiths it was the snickering insinuation from the other kids that trying to do better for yourself meant you thought you were better than others.
One day in school, Dee Dee’s teacher asked the children in the class what they wanted to be. Most of the girls said stewardess or secretary or teacher. Dee Dee said beautician, designer, artist and poet. “Everything. I want to be everything,” she told the teacher.
The teacher smiled and said that in order to be good at any one thing, you had to focus on only that thing.
“I didn’t believe that,” Griffith Joyner said. “I told her I wanted to do this and this and this. When she said that, it only made me more determined to do other things.”
Her determination helped her overcome the painful absence of a father. Robert and Florence Griffith were divorced when the children were quite young.
He lived in the Mojave Desert but saw his children on holidays. He was a strict man and wanted his children to shed the trappings of their inner-city life. He wanted his children to speak well, so that they would not be branded as ghetto kids.
“He would come to pick us up and we would spend two weeks with him on holidays,” Griffith Joyner said. “The other kids used to call my brothers and sisters and me the desert kids. They used to call us worse. My dad was so strict. He used to make us pronounce certain words right. Like we couldn’t say, wuz, we had to say, waaas. We couldn’t use at at the end of sentences.
“We got home and we talked like that, and the kids teased us. So we went back to ourselves and the kids teased us for that.
“I used to be teased for the way I wore my hair at school. I used to do things like wear a different-colored sock on each leg. They would laugh at the furniture in our living room. They weren’t allowed to play in their living room, but my mom let us. We used to tear the stuff up. They laughed at the furniture we had.”
There was a time when Griffith Joyner made her life an envelope. She folded her feelings deep inside to protect them from the outside. She spoke softly but enunciated meticulously to disguise a slight lisp. She learned to shield herself.
“I felt I was different from other people,” she said. “I did have friends who would say, ‘That’s your style,’ and we got along fine.
“My mother always told us, ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.’ That could last until you got home. You end up crying there, but you don’t cry on your friends. I learned that.
“Eventually, I got strong enough that I didn’t cry when I got home. 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.”
Jeannette Bolden remembers driving Florence Griffith home from track practice at Cal State Northridge, when they would talk about their dreams. Florence was always so sure, so certain of achieving hers. She was sure she would make the 1980 Olympic team, win a gold medal and, someday, set a world record. Yet, there she was, not even among the first-string sprinters at Northridge.
“The only thing she possessed was sheer dedication,” Bolden said. “She had it to an enormous degree.”
That dedication burned in Florence, but she had almost no outlet for it. She was allowed to run a few 200s and maybe a relay, but nothing more. She was told that she had a bad start and that it would always hold her back.
When teammates Bolden and Alice Brown made the 1980 Olympic team and got to go to the White House, Florence watched. When they went to Europe to compete for the first time and came back to tell the exciting stories, Florence listened.
But while they were away, she had been planning.
“When we got back, I asked her what she did that summer, where did she go,” Bolden said. “She said she had trained really hard all summer. I couldn’t believe it.”
Florence could hardly believe she was in school in the first place. After enrolling at Northridge, she found she could not afford to stay. She went to work as a bank teller, hoping to save enough money to go back. The Northridge coach, Bob Kersee, found Florence, though, and helped her get financial aid.
The problem was that Florence was not doing as well as she thought she could.
“We had a drill where we were timed over distances,” she said. “If Bobby wanted you at 3.0 at 30 meters coming out of the blocks, you did it. Jeannette, Alice, everyone was making the times. Not me. I was out there and I was so frustrated. In training, my times were better than theirs, over any distance. But if you put in the blocks, forget it.
“They always told me I was a poor starter. That’s why I ran the 200 so much. I was frustrated with my performance. I was there, but I wasn’t there enough. I never stopped trying, I never stopped training. I always thought there had to be a way.”
Kersee left Northridge to become an assistant at UCLA, and Florence followed. She continued to specialize in the 200 meters, and she won the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship in 1982 and finished second in 1983. In her first year out of college, while still working with Kersee, she finished second in the 200 meters at the 1984 Olympics.
“Florence didn’t just walk onto a track and say, ‘Here I am.’ There’s a history there,” Bolden said.
But for Florence, the history was fraught with mistakes. Instead of working to improve her start, coaches always told her to avoid races in which starting is crucial, such as the 100. Instead of trying to work within the framework of her own style and technique, coaches tried to change the way she ran.
“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.”
She learned eventually that from running the curve on the 200, her left hip had become much weaker than her right. She also discovered what was wrong with her start. She simply wasn’t strong enough. She knew that it took enormous leg strength, especially in the hamstrings, to propel herself out of the blocks. She set about making her legs as strong as she could make them.
The world might never have seen how strong her legs would become. In 1986, she was working in a bank and had put on 15 extra pounds. It appeared that all her talent had gone to waist.
She was working full time, and her training time suffered. It is a period that she is sensitive about. She had not, though, as Kersee jokingly told reporters earlier this year, gained 60 pounds. And she was not in retirement. She was training alone but still working toward the goals she had set but not forgotten.
She was training before work, on her lunch hour and sometimes at midnight. For what? What did she see in herself that others did not? What potential was there that gave her faith?
“I knew I hadn’t reached my peak,” she said. “I knew there was a world record in me. The one thing I wanted was a world record before retirement. It was either a world record or a gold medal. I knew that when it came to running that I had never reached, physically, the point of athletic peak. I just refused to stop.
“I always thought to myself, ‘Well, there’ll be one day when I will be able to do it. When I won’t have to say anything; my running will speak for itself.’ I’ve always believed in myself. I’ve never given up.”
Al Joyner is holding his wife’s crushed black velvet evening bag and watching Gary Collins, genial host of “Hour Magazine,” survey Florence’s legs. In a minute, Collins will read one of Griffith Joyner’s poems, titled “Happiness.” Collins reads the poem on the show as a surprise to her. The bigger surprise is that Collins mistakenly says Al wrote it.
It has been a long day, but it will stretch even longer. After the taping of this show, CBS news wants to drive Florence and Al to the beach and film them running along the shore.
These running-off-into-the-sunset shots have all the earmarks of made-for-television fakery. This one, though, is based on truth. This was one of the ways Al courted Florence. This and training with her at odd hours, timing her drills and being very supportive.
The first time Al saw his future wife was at the 1980 Olympic trials. Al, who won the gold medal in the triple jump in the 1984 Olympics, was attending college in Arkansas and had never heard of Griffith. He called a family member with a connection. His sister, Jackie, was also coached by Kersee, whom she would eventually marry.
His end of the phone conversation consisted of: “I’m going to get me that Florence Griffith.”
Jackie’s end of the conversation consisted of “Ha!” and “Ha, ha, ha!”
In other words, get in line, brother.
Al was transfixed with Florence’s regal presence, her beauty and what he saw as her shyness. Florence was not impressed.
Al’s would-be romance with Florence was thwarted on two counts: It not only was a long-distance yearning, it was also one-sided.
He chose to solve that by moving to Los Angeles in 1986. His first order of business on arrival was to call Florence, reintroduce himself--"You remember, Jackie’s brother"--and ask her to show him the city.
His timing was lousy. Al had arrived smack in the middle of Florence’s funk. She didn’t want a dating partner, she wanted a training partner for her odd-hour workouts.
OK, said Al. If the way to spend time with Florence was to run 150s with her, OK. If instead of dinner, it was three circuits around a weight-training room, fine. He was getting to know this icy beauty, and not only did he like what he saw, but he loved what he heard, little though it was at first.
Florence: “The first time we went out to dinner, he did all the talking.”
Al: “I was very nervous.”
Florence: “After he finished talking, telling me half of his life story, he wanted me in return to tell my whole life story.”
Al: “I did not. I just wanted you to talk. The only time you talked was when we ordered.”
Florence: “I don’t just talk to anyone.”
Al: “I found out then that she was very, very shy.”
And Al soon knew more about her than others in track and field. They looked at the flamboyant Griffith, with her six-inch fingernails and her flashy, clingy running suits and they saw arrogance.
Florence didn’t know what to do about that. “People have come up and told me, ‘Once I got to know you, I found out that you were a very nice person. But before, I thought you were cocky,’ ” she said.
“I would say, ‘Why?’ They’d say, ‘Because you would never talk to anybody. You just had that look that you didn’t want anyone to approach you, and nobody did.’ How could they judge me?”
They did anyway, and it hurt Al because he loved her. He wanted to marry her.
Al’s marriage proposal, though, was botched by a workout. He had reservations at a tony restaurant, had hired a violinist and rented a limo. Florence knew they had a date for dinner but was unaware of the rest. Al waited and waited for her to return from practice.
She was very late.
“She was working on something and it was going well and she didn’t want to stop,” said Al, who was understanding from an athlete’s perspective but edgy from a suitor’s perspective.
Finally, Florence returned and got dressed for a casual late-night dinner. Al had canceled everything but the limo, and he and Florence just rode around. Al got up his nerve and knelt before Florence in the limo.
“I was so nervous,” he said. “I told her, ‘You are the most sweet, beautiful, kind, straightforward person. Would you be my wife?’ She didn’t say anything. She started crying. She didn’t stop for 30 minutes.”
Al didn’t get an answer until the next day, when he and Florence and her family were at a church carnival. One of Florence’s nieces won a prize--a rubber stamp that said, ‘Yes.’ She pressed it into Al’s hand. He had his answer. They were married in 1987.
Florence and Al are bonded in a special way. The support each can offer the other in track is invaluable. For Al, here, truly, was the woman of his dreams. For Florence, after involvement with athletes who saw her more as a decoration than a partner, here at last was a man who would support her and not be jealous.
“I think I feel a lot more secure now because of Al, because he’s there by my side,” she said. “I’ve never had the security with anyone like I’ve had with Al. When it comes to athletics, he’s given me more than 100% support.
“I feel the same, but I have changed because of Al. Al is an open person. I feel at ease being a little more open with him. No one has been able to make me feel comfortable as much as Al has.”
They move forward now as a team. Al, who did not make the U.S. Olympic team this year, will be in Seoul as Florence’s coach.
Her publicized estrangement from Kersee, who is also her bother-in-law, is behind her. The controversy about her world record at the Olympic trials in July--with the speculation that her 10.49 was wind-aided--may linger. These are tests for Griffith Joyner, but she has had them before. The doubts and the derision have always been with her.
“I haven’t changed and I’m not going to change,” she said. “The world record is not going to change me. I’m not going to allow people to change me. My family has always believed in me, and now all these people are saying they knew I could do it. Funny, I never heard that before.
“I was always the only 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. And all those people who didn’t believe it were the same people who didn’t believe in me before.”
Some of them might even have been among those who laughed at her. But if they’re laughing now, Florence Griffith Joyner no longer cares.