“The fastest living woman!” The commentator would roar as Jamaican Shericka Jackson faded along the track with swinging arms, with knees kicking, to an incredible time of 21:45 to take gold at the World Athletics Championship. She would still be the second fastest woman in history. The fastest was the great Florence Griffith Joyner, aka Flo Jo, who lived a fast-paced dreamy life as a runner, a free spirit, an exuberant fashionista to whom the famous singer Beyonce would pay her respects, once in a ‘flo-jo’ costume, and who died tragically young, in her sleep after a seizure, a death she’d had premonitions about for some time. They say it is better to die young than to disappear and Flo Jo unfortunately became its most famous symbolic figure. But boy could she run. Her life is a whole story.
— World Athletics (@WorldAthletics) July 22, 2022
Controversies followed her. No one could catch her on the track; many tried it out. Her fans would say she ran like the wind; critics said she was helped by the wind. Her power was celebrated all over the world; some whispered that it was fueled by drugs. Her style made the world gaga; the haters mock the six-inch vibrant fingernails. Beyonce wore her bodysuit; they said Flo-Jo’s career was a matter of style over substance. She retired in 87′ to have a child; they said she ran away for fear of doping tests. She never failed a single drug test. She was tested 11 times in Seoul alone, nothing illegal was found. She had premonitions about death, knew that only death could get to her; and it did.
But her last act was her biggest posthumous run. With her death and his second marriage, a promise she had wrung from him during her premonitions, her daughter Mary began to drift in life. As a 7-year-old, with her father a broken man, it was Mary who called near and dear ones to tell them about her mother’s death. The mother’s emptiness would catch up with her, and she drifted off into teenage years, distant and captivated by the blues.
It was then that her father produced Flo-Jo’s letters to her – labeled “unopenable until you turn 16” – and the joy for life returned to Mary. She became a singer-songwriter, performer, and sang in the 2012 Olympic track and field competitions. However, it is her mother who was the rock star of track and field.
Incredibly, in 1985, after winning gold at the ’84 Olympics, Flo Jo worked at a bank. The life of the training and the runner had dwindled, and her main sideline was styling – manicure nails, making clothes. She had started out as a bank clerk before cashing in on her fortune at the tracks, but then retreated back into the gray banking world. She would do her friends’ nails and hair overnight and charge $45 to $200 for intricate braiding.
Overweight (her coach would say she was 60 pounds heavier), but unburdened by the world, she lived her life when her coaches, husband Al Joyner and brother-in-law Bob Kersee, spurred her into action. Her husband Al, whom she met in 1980 and married in ’87, was an Olympic triple jump champion and brother of Olympic heptathlon and long jump legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
The marriage drove her back on track. She would train at 4 o’clock. Moved by Canadian Ben Johnson’s power start at the 1987 World Championships, Al ramped up her strength training. Reportedly, weighing 130 pounds, she could squat 320 pounds. “To run like a man, you have to train like a man,” she would say.
But before the epic run in Seoul 88, came the fashionista. “Dress well to look good. Look good to feel good. And feel good to run fast!” she would say. Six-inch acrylic nails were materialized, hair flowed, face sparkled with makeup, and her self-designed running sets were all the rage — from single-leg bodysuits, hooded skate bodysuits, color-block bikini bottoms, detailed lace rompers and asymmetrical outfits. Flamboyance had a middle name: Flo Jo.
The sense of fashion was innate. She could knit, sew and crochet. From 7 she flirted with her own designer clothes. In the late 70s, early 80s, before she became famous, she went running in New York and caught the attention of famous running coach Pat Connolly who once wrote in NYT about that moment: “She was so beautiful, my eyes often followed her as she raced by. I had to resist an urge to talk to her, to ask if she was a singer. There were no fancy fingernails or hairstyles yet; no one-legged tights; no layers of make-up; no bulging muscles to power strong mechanical strides. What I saw was an intensity in her dark eyes, the kind that comes from hunger; the kind that revealed that this young woman had heart.”
And her heart was free and wayward.
“You can wear anything you want when you’re ready to go when the guns go off. You’re going to run fast anyway. Makeup doesn’t stop you. The outfit won’t stop you,” is one of her famous quotes. In 1988, she began wearing what she called “one-leggers,” which came about after accidentally cutting one leg shorter than the other. “I started laughing and she said, ‘I’m wearing this.’ And that’s how it started,” said Joyner. She posted little motivational notes all over her house. The timing of her race to win, quotes from the 23rd Psalm of the Bible, and her favorite was, “I can do it because I believe I can.”
Training raged on for Seoul. So was her love of clothes. She packed more than 100 outfits, her husband would say with a laugh. She painted her 6 inch long fingernails on fleek with red, blue, gold, white. She was ready to enter dreams of athletic kids with aspirations, girls who wanted power to be themselves like tennis star Serene Williams, wide-eyed kids and adoring, amused adults.
“I spend about 15 minutes applying my makeup,” she once told The Boston Globe. “It takes me much longer to prepare for a race.”
On a jet fuel
On July 16, 1988, during trials in Indianapolis for Seoul, the jaws of superstar athletes and coaches would drop open in awe. In the 100 meters she followed Evelyn Ashword’s record of 10.76. Her husband would keep insisting she could do it because 10.5 was his timing, and she beats him in practice. When the clock stopped after the run, the world stopped in awe: 10:49, it seemed.
“No one can run that fast. The heat must be doing something to the electronics,” said ABC announcer Marty Liquori. Omega Timing has examined the anemometer and timing system and found no malfunction. Yet many, including her husband, believe it was helped by the wind. Later, the Association of Track and Field Statisticians would asterisk it with “probably heavily wind-supported, but recognized as a world record.” The next day, in the final, she still set a record, breaking over in 10.61 seconds.
“If you go back to the movie of her running technique in ’84 and then again to ’88, that’s the difference. That’s the secret. Work hard, sleep well, eat well. And then she had a special gift from God,” Al Joyner told BBC Sport. “I said, ‘Honey, go out and make them think you’re using jet fuel’.”
In Seoul, she ran the 100m in 10.54 (supported by wind), in her last five meters her arms were thrown up and a bright smile spread across her face. One of the great sports photos of our time.
In the 200m semifinal, she broke a nine-year-old world record before breaking it again in under two hours in the final, which shone in 21.34 seconds. It’s been 34 years, nobody has caught up with her yet.
Death did it. In 1998, at the age of 38, Flo Jo died in her sleep, a rare disease and lesion in her brain that caused seizures, a problem (cavernous angioma) that had only surfaced after the birth of her daughter.
The man Al called 911, crying, ‘My wife is gone. My wife is gone.” They asked him to perform CPR, but he couldn’t find a heartbeat. He later recalled talking to her, “This is not the way the story should end. I would go for you. You should see Mary grow up…’ At that moment Mary came running into the room, ‘what’s wrong with mommy?’ The paramedics arrived just then and soon pronounced her dead, as she had suffocated in her sleep, in layman’s terms.
The paramedics would hand him their wedding ring and a broken fingernail. The critics still grumbled about the effects of drugs. The extensive autopsy and toxicology tests conducted over two days rejected them: It revealed no use of steroids or performance-enhancing drugs in her system. “She took the ultimate drug test. I told them to test everything,” Al told Espn. “And there was nothing there, and there never was.” Nothing but a great mind.