Flashy Florence Griffith Joyner Will Be the One to Watch—and Clock—in the Women's Sprints
08/29/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
A few days before the Olympic Track and Field Trials last month, Florence Griffith Joyner stepped out of her apartment door for a last training run. It was 10 p.m., and her husband, Al Joyner, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, was running with her. It was part of their routine: They would race each other down busy Woodley Avenue in Van Nuys, Calif., to the intersection 700 meters away. That night Al stayed even for the first 50 yards. "Don't tense up, stay relaxed, Dee Dee," he whispered, using her family nickname. "Right then she pulled away from me," he recalls. "It was like afterburners ignited on her feet." Griffith Joyner's best time to the corner had been 1:41; now, when she clicked the stopwatch, it read 1:36. "I told her it was a good omen," says Al. "The name of the street we run to is Victory."
On July 15, 28-year-old Delorez Florence Griffith Joyner achieved victory again. On the opening day of the trials in Indianapolis, she shattered the women's 100-meter world record, running one heat in an astonishing 10.49 seconds (bettering teammate Evelyn Ashford's 1984 record of 10.76). The next day she broke the record during three more sprints. Those times made Griffith Joyner the gold medal favorite at Seoul (Ashford will be a main challenger) and established her as the world's swiftest woman. She provided the coup de grace on the last day, when she broke the American 200-meter record with a time of 21.85. "I knew I was ready to run," she says in her sultry alto voice. "My suitcase had been packed a week before we left."
As much as her blazing speed, it was the contents of Griffith Joyner's suitcase that left many spectators wide-eyed. The woman who sported four-inch, red-white-and-blue fingernails at the 1984 Olympics now burst from the starting blocks in a series of stunning, low-cut bodysuits covered by bikini briefs. One leg was completely uncovered—exhibiting quadriceps and hamstrings that Michelangelo might have sculpted. "I like designing clothes, and I wanted to bring something of myself into what I do," explains Florence. "The one-legger was an accident. I was actually creating an even more radical style—it has to do with cutting more holes in the stocking—and I happened to cut off the leg. I tried it on and thought, 'Hmmm. This looks cute.' Besides," she adds, "it's about time track and field looked pretty."
Track and field almost missed the chance. Born in L.A., the seventh of airline technician Robert Griffith and his wife Florence's 11 children, young Florence took home a fistful of. running medals and later went on to Cal State-Northridge, where she came under the tutelage of Bobby Kersee. When he moved to UCLA the next year, Griffith followed him and became a friend and teammate of Jackie Joyner. Florence won a silver medal in the 200 meters at the 1984 Olympics, but by early 1986 she was working as a customer service representative for an L.A. bank and had gained 15 pounds. "I didn't drop out of running," she insists, disputing Kersee's jocular claim that she had gained 60 pounds, "but I didn't decide to get focused until later in the year." The focusing began in earnest last November, when she appeared at Kersee's doorstep and asked if there was time to get in shape for the trials. Kersee designed a rigorous training program, but her big improvement, Florence says, came when she finally learned the secret possessed by the greatest runners: how to achieve greater speed by trying less hard. "For a long time I thought that being relaxed meant you were running slow, but it's the contrary. When you're trying to go fast, you're fighting against your body instead of letting go."
Since the trials, Griffith Joyner's appearance fee has jumped from $1,500 to $25,000, but her success has taken a small toll on family togetherness. Shortly after the trials, the newly minted celeb parted ways with Kersee, citing financial and coaching differences, and named husband Al her coach. "There are no hard feelings," Kersee says. "Jackie and I are happy for her and Al." Jackie, whose hair Florence often braids, agrees: "We're family."
Al Joyner admits it took some persistence for him to win Florence Griffith. "I first laid eyes on her at the 1980 Olympic Trials and thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world," he says. Nothing came of that encounter, and she became engaged to hurdler Greg Foster for a time, but Al and Florence occasionally met at meets. In 1986 Al moved to L.A. from his home in Arkansas in order to train—and told friends back home that the only reason he wouldn't come back would be if he had married Griffith. "She's so sincere and sweet," says Al, who admits that Florence hardly noticed him at first. "She's also the most determined athlete I know besides my sister Jackie." When Florence finally did notice him, she found that "we have the same views about track and field and about life."
Joyner, a self-described romantic, planned his marriage proposal carefully. "I ordered a limousine to take us out to dinner," he says. "I got down on my knees in the car, and I said to her, 'You are the most sweet, loving, kind, straightforward person I know. Will you be my wife?' She looked at me and started to cry. She didn't say a word, but she took the ring. The next day we took her niece and nephew out to lunch, and she handed me a little piece of paper that said, 'Yes.' "
One week after his wife's stunning performance in the trials, Al removed his 1984 gold medal from the bank safe-deposit box and placed it around his wife's neck. "I know how hard she has worked this year and how much she wants to win the gold," says Joyner. "So I told her, 'Dee Dee, to me you've already won the gold medal, but when you come back with your three after Seoul, you can give me this one back.' " Florence Griffith Joyner, fastest woman in the world, is counting on giving it back.