Many remembered her as a child of the Watts projects, a little girl called Dee Dee, a dynamo who was always running, never seemed to get tired and had a fierce determination to win every race, whether it was on the schoolyard, in the streets or on a track.
They remembered Florence Griffith Joyner at a candlelight vigil Tuesday night in South-Central Los Angeles, and paid tribute to a athlete who died too young. Griffith Joyner meant so much to Watts residents, friends and former neighbors said, because no matter how many Olympic medals she won or world records she set, she never forgot where she came from.
Sonya Robertson went to Jordan High School with Griffith Joyner, graduated with her in 1978 and ran track with her.
“She never forgot about Watts,” Robertson said. “She was always willing to come back home and attend community functions. That’s why she meant so much to us. She never got high and mighty. She remained down to earth, no matter what she accomplished.”
Many of the hundreds of people at the vigil in Leimert Park were from Watts, and they held candles aloft, prayed and sang spirituals in remembrance of a local hero.
Griffith Joyner died Monday morning at the age of 38. The cause has not yet been determined.
Nicknamed FloJo, she was a stylish, flamboyant runner who wore provocative lace bodysuits and won races with elan. Ten years ago, she won the first of three gold medals at the Seoul Olympics, running the 100 meters in an Olympic-record time. She also won gold medals in the 200-meter race and 400-meter relay, and a silver medal at 1,600 meter relay, becoming the first American woman to win four medals in track and field at a single Olympics.
Watts took great pride in her accomplishments. Her victories, residents said, gave them hope.
“She gave everybody courage,” said Cheryl Johnson, who attended high school with Griffith Joyner. “We were all raised in a poverty area, and to see someone like her make it, someone who was like us, was wonderful. She was our hero. She made us believe.”
Griffith Joyner’s sister, Vivian Johnson, and her brother, Weldon Pitts, told the crowd that Joyner was gratified she was an inspiration to her old neighborhood.
“My baby sister came from a long way out and she showed . . . there’s no limit to what you can do,” Pitts said. “She showed that if she can do it, you can do it.”