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Fierce Determination Stirred Track Diva

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It could have been her incandescent smile or her six-inch fingernails or even her world-record sprinting performances in 1988, but Jeanette Bolden was struck by a long-ago shopping excursion when asked about her friend and former roommate, Florence Griffith Joyner.

Bolden, the women’s track coach at UCLA, was subdued in the immediate hours after learning of Griffith Joyner’s death on Monday at 38. But the memory of that shopping trip brought forth some laughter.

“In Europe, we’d go shopping for baby clothes and she would say, ‘This is for my daughter,’ ” said Bolden, a 400-meter relay Olympic gold medalist in 1984. “I’d say, ‘How do you know you’re going to have a daughter?’ So her daughter [Mary] had clothes way before she was born. This was in the early ‘80s.”

Friends and colleagues spoke about the wonderfully quirky Griffith Joyner, noting that shyness lurked under the flamboyant exterior. She was once asked to leave a shopping mall because she was wearing her pet boa constrictor around her neck. But track officials also remembered the time at a function when she wore a club jacket with her name on the back, misspelled, “Griffin.” Her husband Al Joyner told them she got “a kick out of it.”

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The last time Bolden spoke to Griffith Joyner was about a month ago. They were discussing details of Griffith Joyner’s upcoming induction with 11 others into the UCLA Hall of Fame, a ceremony scheduled for Oct. 3 at the Rose Bowl during halftime of the Bruins’ football game against Washington State. “This is a hard one,” she said. “A big shock to a lot of us. A real big shock when I got the phone call.”

Bolden received the news early Monday morning from Greg Foster. Foster, a three-time world champion in the 110-meter hurdles, was once engaged to Griffith Joyner. Foster noted that she left track having accomplished what she wanted in the sport, winning three gold medals and a silver at the 1988 Olympics. “That’s what she wanted to do, meet her goals and dreams,” he said. “She thought she had done enough. She was happy with what she had accomplished.”

He observed her work ethic at UCLA as well as her vast potential.

“I was able to see what she can and cannot do,” Foster said. “What I saw, she could have done anything she wanted. In ’83, [silver at World Championships in the 200 meters] she was just beginning to realize the potential she had. Finally. The strength was there. A lot of times in track and field it is just believing in yourself.”

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Bolden, who was her roommate when they were at Cal State Northridge, competed against Griffith Joyner when they were in high school locally.

The outfits and larger-than-life persona sometimes overshadowed a fierce desire. Cal Poly SLO track Coach Terry Crawford was the women’s coach at the 1988 Olympics, and she said that Griffith Joyner volunteered to run the anchor leg in the 1,600-meter relay a little more than half an hour after winning the 400-meter relay.

Griffith Joyner, who had never run a 1,600-meter relay in an international meet, had the fastest split of the American runners, and the relay team took the silver behind a world-record performance from the Soviets. Crawford said Griffith Joyner was suffering from a strained thigh. “Those were things no one knew,” Crawford said. “She wasn’t sure how she’d do. But she was going to take a risk. That’s the kind of person I knew.”

Friday will be the 10th anniversary of Griffith Joyner’s triumph in the 100. On Monday the world of track and field paid homage to Griffith Joyner. The American and Olympic flags were lowered to half staff in tribute at the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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“Florence was a groundbreaker, setting new standards in athletic achievement and fashion,” said Craig Masback, chief executive officer of USA Track and Field, in a statement.

“What Florence brought to track was a flash and a flair that we didn’t have, which was probably good for the sport and got attention for us,” said Evelyn Ashford, 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the 100 meters.

Said nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis: “People are still trying to catch the records she set more than 10 years ago. It’s an amazing legacy. Many have tried and all have failed in terms of her records.”

Her niece, Darnesha Griffith, a freshman at UCLA, lived with the Joyners her senior year at Trabuco Hills High. Darnesha, the Southern California Division II champion in the high jump and long jump, and runner-up in the triple jump, was named The Times’ Orange County’s track athlete of the year.

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But the Joyners’ involvement preceded Darnesha’s enrolling at the school. The Joyners were grand marshals at a dedication ceremony at the school in 1992.

“I think that was just her way of giving back to track and field and inspiring young kids to keep working hard and having a dream and a goal,” said Jack Recla, Trabuco Hills girls’ track coach.

Times staff writer Martin Henderson and the Associated Press contributed to this story.


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