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A Farewell to ‘FloJo,’ Fleet, Full of Faith

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Olympic track champion Florence Griffith Joyner was eulogized Saturday as a woman of great stamina and style who motivated countless young athletes with her speed and inspired her family with her grace and faith.

“She just ran, and ran, and ran. She ran spectacular races,” her former coach, Bob Kersee, told the crowd of 1,500 as he stood beneath an Olympic flag at Saddleback Community Church. “What was in her heart, every time she laced up her spikes, was Jesus.”

He added: “God is her coach now. God is her manager.”

The themes of running and faith became intertwined during a funeral that lasted nearly three hours, ending as hundreds of somber mourners filed past the casket of the runner who set world track records and won three gold medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

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Many described themselves as shaken and distressed by Griffith Joyner’s sudden death at the age of 38 on Monday in Mission Viejo. Initial reports suggested she died of a heart-related problem, but no official cause of death has been announced.

Despite the media clamor over her death, the Saturday service was intimate, with personal recollections by her husband, 1984 Olympic triple jump champion Al Joyner, and other close relatives and friends. Joined by a friend, her 7-year-old daughter, Mary Ruth, in a pink dress, sang a religious song with the lyrics, “Wind, wind, blow on me.”

Four video screens inside the church displayed a series of family photos, showing Griffith Joyner in ski goggles, hugging her husband and daughter, wearing a child’s party hat, holding a cake. Only a few shots showed her in the role the world saw: the hard-running and flamboyant track star with hair flying and arms in the air.

News reports of her death have rekindled speculation that she used performance-enhancing drugs in 1988, even though she never failed a drug test and always denied such accusations.

While most speakers at the funeral focused on her triumphs or described her loving support of her family, a few close to her met that speculation head-on. Poisonous lies of accusers, Kersee said, “can’t hurt her anymore.”

Several prominent athletes attended the service, including Bruce Jenner, Willie Gault and Gail Devers, as well as singer Lou Rawls, a church spokesman said.

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William Hybl, president of the United States Olympic Committee, told mourners that Griffith Joyner left behind an important legacy for young women and others. The committee plans to open a special exhibit at its headquarters this spring that will highlight her accomplishments, he said.

“We have lost a great Olympian, but we will all cherish memories of her,” added Anita De Frantz, International Olympic Committee vice president.

One of the most eloquent tributes was paid by longtime friend Carol Land, who recalled meeting Griffith Joyner 26 years ago in a Watts school.

“Florence called me a rose. She called me a beautiful rose--I said, ‘It takes one to know one,’ ” Land said, her eyes brimming with tears. “We formed a covenant, and a covenant says, ‘Till death do you part.’ ”

She added, “If no one else in America honors her, I can say we honored her today.”

Some people called her Florence, some FloJo, the nickname the public gave her, and some simply called her by her childhood name, Dee Dee.

“My auntie Dee Dee, she was here for everything in my life,” one soft-spoken niece told the audience.

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Speaking as if her aunt were present, she vowed: “We’re going to try to do the same thing for [Griffith Joyner’s daughter] Mary that you did for us.”

Al Joyner spoke of her as “my loving wife and one of the world’s greatest moms.” He too described her as a woman of faith. “Florence read her Bible every day. She walked the walk and talked the talk.”

The service was punctuated by music, including a solo of “Amazing Grace” and several hymns by the choir of Second Baptist Church in Santa Ana, the church she attended.

Her funeral was held at the large, nondenominational Saddleback Community Church because her own church was too small to hold the crowd.

Some attending the service only knew the track star from afar.

Gertrude Kelly, who once encountered Griffith Joyner in a Mission Viejo shopping mall, came to pay her respects with her husband out of simple admiration. She called the late star a role model.

“She gave a whole new dimension to the sport and opened it up to women,” Kelly said.

Inez Wiggs of Carson had known Griffith Joyner since the runner was 12 years old and watched her grow up. Her son married Griffith Joyner’s sister.

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“To me, she was a bright, shining person from the get-go,” Wiggs said before the service began. “Every time I saw her run, I would cry--just knowing a person and seeing her strive. If she ran 10 times, I would cry 10 times.”

When she got a telephone call about Griffith Joyner’s death early Monday morning, Wiggs said, “I just went to pieces. . . . I’m still devastated.”

Times staff writer Liz Seymour contributed to this report.

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