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Abiding Strength

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the one-month anniversary of her mother’s death--not that 7-year-olds measure grief in such ways--Mary Ruth Joyner is sitting cross-legged in a quiet corner of the kitchen pulling bits and pieces of her mama’s life out of a monogrammed canvas duffel. An empty Fruit Rollup wrapper (apple flavor), a mirrored black compact and a tortoise-shell tube of glittering bronze lipstick.

Mary twists open the lipstick and, holding it like a pen, inscribes a piece of scrap paper in her careful third-grade cursive. “F . . . l . . . o . . . J . . . o,” she writes slowly, then with two quick strokes, draws a little heart at the end.

“Mary, come play a song for us,” someone calls from the living room. She tucks the Valentine back into the bag and joins the grown-ups (the house seems full of grown-ups lately) around the ebony piano her mother bought a decade ago with the hope that there would someday be a child to play it.

Too short for the bench, Mary stands up to the keyboard to play. She plays “Chopsticks"--with both hands, rushes through a few chords of Beethoven’s Fifth and then picks out a new melody she came up with one day after school.

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“No, no, play that one I like so much, that happy tune,” says her father, Al Joyner. Although Mary has never had a music lesson, she offers a flawless rendition of Beethoven’s aerie “Fur Elise.”

“Isn’t she amazing?” Al marvels. “Mary is a true gift from God. One more strong woman to help me through this life.”

To understand the force of Florence Griffith Joyner’s determination, to feel the power of her enormous presence--even in death--one need only spend a day with Mary and Al.

Before Griffith Joyner died Sept. 21 after suffocating in her pillow during an epileptic seizure, her husband used to joke that when he wrote his autobiography, the title would be “Man in the Middle.”

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“Almost since I was born, I’ve been surrounded by strong, strong women. First, my mother, Mary Ruth, then my sister Jackie [Joyner-Kersee] and then my wife. Without them,” Al says, “I couldn’t have done any of what I have with my life. Now, it’s up to Mary, my mother’s namesake. She’s the future.”

Living Up to His Name

Alfrederick Alphonzo Joyner has not always been defined by the women around him. At first, he was defined simply by his name.

“With that grandiose name, I just had to do something important,” he says.

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His mother was 15, and his father, Alfred, was 14 and a promising pole vaulter and hurdler who gave up sports when Al was born on Jan. 19, 1960. Sister Jackie, named by their Grandma Ollie for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, arrived two years later. Two other sisters soon followed, and they all lived in Grandma Ollie’s home--a tiny house with a front porch 3 feet off the ground that Al and Jackie and their cousins used to practice long-jumping from into the weed-choked yard.

Raised on the wrong side of the Mississippi in East St. Louis, Ill., a city that often tops the list of the nation’s most dangerous places to live, the Joyner kids were strictly supervised by their mother. One of the few places she let them go without her was the neighborhood recreation center.

Al took up swimming and diving. Jackie took up track and field. Then, as now, they didn’t compete against each other if they could avoid it. If they did, Jackie usually won, and Al had to endure another week’s worth of teasing from his father.

But not even Jackie could swim like Al. As a lifeguard at the public pool, he was famous for saving a 7-year-old from drowning. The girl dubbed her hero “that sweet man by the water,” and soon everyone who heard the story of the rescue was calling Al “Sweetwater.” It was a nickname that fit the soft-spoken, sweet-tempered boy.

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But in high school, after years of watching his sister and his cousin Roderick Glover, a champion high school hurdler, compete, Al decided to go out for track. He didn’t give up his late-night dance contests (which he always won), so Jackie had to drag him out of bed in the morning for practice before school. But with his cousin’s help, he mastered the tricky triple-jump technique and, by the last three weeks of high school, had improved so dramatically that he was offered a scholarship to Tennessee State.

A semester later, Al transferred to Arkansas State. But in his sophomore year, he was called home: His mother was in an irreversible coma. She had been stricken with a rare and virulent form of meningitis, and, at the age of 37, Mary Ruth Gaines Joyner died.

In 1983, Al left college to train full time for the Los Angeles Olympics.

“If I don’t come back,” he told friends, “it’s because I’ll have married Florence Griffith.”

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He had been smitten by the dazzling sprinter for months. From the moment he saw her picture in Track & Field News, he wanted to marry her. Now that she was training with his sister Jackie at UCLA, he had reason to hope he might actually get a date.

Jackie wasn’t so sure.

“Why not? Because he was my brother, my crazy, silly, daydreaming brother,” Jackie recalls.

It didn’t matter. Al pleaded with Jackie to “tell Florence that I really like her.”

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“I know I was dreaming, but I believed in my heart we were meant to be together. Believing it is enough sometimes, you know?”

But Florence wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. What she needed was somebody who wanted to train with her, someone who would run with her and who wouldn’t lose his temper when her coach, Bob Kersee, kept her late at practice.

Al was--or at least, he became--that person.

“I knew that my most serious competition was her devotion to track. So I worked on just showing her how supportive I could be, how I could be her best friend, on and off the track,” Al says.

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In 1984, the rigorous “training dates” paid off for both of them. Both won spots on the 1984 Olympic track team: Florence as a relay sprinter, Al as one of three Americans in the triple jump. But even though he qualified easily for the team, sportscasters considered Al such a longshot that they didn’t even mention his name on the air. Jackie Joyner, not Al, became the media’s darling.

After four rounds of the triple jump, Al was leading the field, but Jackie was in a desperate race to pull out of second place in the grueling heptathlon. As Al waited to take his final jump, Jackie was on her mark on the opposite side of the Coliseum, ready to start her last race--the 800 meters.

This is how Sports Illustrated described what happened next:

“Al ran across the infield to the edge of the final turn [of Jackie’s race]. Al became a man afire. He started running alongside his sister on the infield grass. ‘Pump your arms, Jackie!’ he screamed. ‘This is it!’ ”

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But even with her crazy brother running next to her, Jackie never caught up. She would go on to win three gold medals in future Olympics, but in that race, Jackie had to settle for silver. It was Al who took home the gold.

When Jackie stepped down from the awards stand in tears, Al rushed to console her.

“I’m not crying because I lost,” Jackie sobbed. “I’m crying because you won. You fooled them all.”

They Can’t Make Her Cry

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On a corkboard above the computer in the Joyners’ home office is a yellow Post-it with this sentence: “I believe in the impossible because no one else does, and that gives me an excellent chance of accomplishing it!” It is signed “FGJ, 3-8-98.”

By the time Al Joyner and Florence Griffith met, both were already well-acquainted with the tenets of the original self-help book, Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Like Al, Florence had repeatedly overcome impossible odds by being her own best cheerleader.

The seventh of Robert and Florence Deloris Griffith’s 11 children, Florence Delorez Griffith was nicknamed “Dee Dee” to distinguish her from her mother. She grew up in the Jordan Downs housing projects of South-Central, painfully shy but athletically and artistically gifted.

Her parents divorced when she was very young, and because her mother didn’t want her children out on the streets after school, the six boys and five girls entertained themselves with football, basketball, footraces and handstand contests (which Dee Dee always won).

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Later, as the world-famous “FloJo,” she would explode out of the running blocks in wild bursts of color, from her spandex and lace suits to her rainbow-splashed nails. As a child, she was just as colorful, mixing crushed crayons into clear polish to create new hues, wrapping a boa--her pet boa constrictor, Brandy--around her neck as a fashion accessory. And when Brandy shed, Dee Dee saved the skins and painted them.

Other children made fun of Dee Dee and her eccentricities--the way she rode a unicycle to school, her mismatched socks, her one-braid-up-one-braid-down hairdos. But, Dee Dee used to brag, they couldn’t make her cry. At least not in public.

“She learned early on to steel herself against the world when she had to,” Al recalls. “Instead of crushing all that creativity, it only made it stronger.”

When teachers asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Dee Dee invariably answered, “Everything--I want to be everything!”

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In the Joyners’ two-story, Mediterranean-style house at the crest of a hill above Lake Mission Viejo, corners, closets, entire rooms overflow with Florence’s things. A bookcase is filled with her fanciful drawings and stories for children’s books. There are boxes of fabrics--velvet, organdy, spandex, silk, see-through laces--that she used to sew her inimitable running suits, the ones she called “athletic negligees,” and wore not to sleep in, but to shatter world-class speed records.

In the summer of 1988, Al took over as Florence’s coach from Kersee, who was now Jackie’s husband. Both Al and Florence credited their working relationship with helping her go on to win three gold medals and one silver in the Seoul Olympics later that year. There were rumors that FloJo’s incredible time of 10.49 in the 100-meter dash--a world record that still stands--and her time of 21.34 in the 200-meter event suggested she had used performance-enhancing drugs. But Florence never failed a drug test, and both she and Al attributed her extraordinary achievements to a new regimen of rigorous weight training.

As Florence told sportswriters at the time, “If you want to run like a man, you have to train like a man.” Under Al’s tutelage, she had grown strong enough to do squats with 320-pound weights balanced on her shoulders.

“It was so unfair, those accusations,” Al says today, clutching to his chest a gold chain that holds his wife’s wedding rings. “It was just like when she was a little girl, she was crushed when they tried to take her victory away from her, but she never let them see her cry.”

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But in 1991, when Al was pulled over by Los Angeles police officers, who suspected him of driving a stolen car, on the second day of riots after the Rodney King verdict, Dee Dee did break down. Al was driving her 1986 burgundy Nissan with the “LA TRACK” license plates when he was ordered to his knees and surrounded by 10 officers on a busy Hollywood street. Although it is difficult for Al to talk about even today, friends say he has never fully recovered from the experience of having a cocked pistol held inches from his head.

“Here was a guy who had survived so much,” says his agent, David Brownstein, “a sweet, gentle soul who was so grateful to have that second chance in life after East St. Louis. It broke Florence’s heart.”

Reminders of FloJo

On a plexiglass rack above the blond-and-white-painted kitchen table, there are 120 bottles of nail polish. The spectrum ranges from Snow White to Lemon Lime to Wild Purple Sizzle. There are a few hundred more bottles of polish out in the garage, where Florence recently set up her own manicure salon after returning to school to earn a California cosmetology license.

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At a visitor’s request, Al reaches into a burled wood bookcase in the Joyners’ red-carpeted foyer and takes out a stand holding some of FloJo’s favorite sets of artificial nails--one embedded with rhinestones, one with tiny seed pearls and another emblazoned with red stripes, blue stars and tiny gold eagles.

“Keep in mind that she didn’t have to run with fingernails like this to break all those records,” Al says, “but she liked to. Colors excited her and brought her joy. That was Dee Dee. That was FloJo.”

The garage may soon be changed back into a place for parking cars, but much of Griffith Joyner’s other work will go on. Al is now putting the final touches on the book on running that Florence was writing for IDG Books Worldwide, which publishes the bestselling self-help ". . . for Dummies” books. And Lady Foot Locker will move ahead with its FGJ signature line of running wear designed by Florence during the last two years.

Memories in a Scrapbook

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“I want to show you something Dee Dee left for me and for her daughter,” says Joyner, opening a flowered scrapbook. The plastic pages are slightly yellowed, but it is easy to see what’s inside.

“Look here, this is the card from the first bouquet of red roses I ever sent to her. See? She even kept the envelope with the name of the florist. Here’s a little card I sent her when I was courting her.” It’s a poem about Florence’s hair--her larger-than-life doll-baby curls that flew out behind her when she ran. “Silly, huh? Well, everybody’s silly in love.

“But here’s the most important thing Dee Dee left me,” Al says. From a wall near the fireplace, he gingerly removes a poster-sized photograph of Mary.

“This is one of the photographs I shot of Mary on the day she was born. I had five albums filled before she even got home from the hospital!”

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In this portrait, Mary is about 2 hours old, and her pudgy, newborn face is still lopsided from the birth. She is wearing an outrageous red dress with big lace and big ruffles--a dress that loudly announces “I’m here!"--a baby dress that could only have been chosen by the fabulous FloJo.

About a week after her mother died, Mary began to resume her routine. She returned to the parochial day school her parents selected for her this fall, and she has begun again to have friends over to play. But she has not resumed her gymnastics. The last time she performed her round-off-back flip-splits routine was when she won her first ribbons.

“Her mama was there to see her and, oh, that was such a special moment for both of them,” Al says.

Now it is Al who wakes Mary at 6:30 for school, and it is Al who braids her hair, irons her clothes and, yes, Al who forgets to pack her gym bag. On a recent morning, the phone rings, and Jackie, who is there to help clean her brother’s house and cook some bacon for his breakfast, calls out, “Al, pick up! It’s the school.”

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Al races to the phone with a look of fright, but it is just Mary wondering where her P.E. clothes are.

“Oh, honey, I packed them in your book bag, but I forgot to send your shirt.”

Someone from the school gets on the line to assure him, “We’ll come up with something.”

At 11:50 a.m., Al climbs into his wife’s car for the quick drive to Mary’s school, where he kneels by her lunch table while she eats and then, as Room Dad, picks up the trash as the children race outdoors for recess.

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“I don’t know what I’d do without Mary,” he says with a sigh, as he walks back to the car. “But I know we’re going to make it, because I know her mother wants us to.”


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