African American track star Florence Griffith-Joyner was an outstanding female sprinter of her generation, winning three gold medals at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
Born in Los Angeles, California on December 21, 1959, Florence Delorez Griffith grew up in housing project in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles as the seventh of eleven children. her father would often take the family to the Mojave Desert to let them chase and try to catch Jackrabbits, which are one of the fastest animals on earth. Flo was the only sibling to actually catch one and the family soon gave her the nickname "Jackrabbit". Only seven, Florence won her first race, the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation Competition in Los Angeles. At the age of 14, she won the Jesse Owens National Youth Games. Before graduating in 1978, she had broken Los Angeles Jordan High School's records in sprints and long jump.
Following graduation, Griffith competed at California State Northridge under the legendary sprint coach Bob Kersee and helped them win the national championship in 1978. Unable to afford college, Flo Jo dropped out for two years and worked as a bank teller. When her old coach landed an assistant coaching job at UCLA, he was able to get a scholarship for Florence Griffith and she reemerged in the college spotlight where her her meteoric speed earned her the 1982 NCAA title in the 200-meter dash.
In 1980 Florence Griffith tried out for the 1980 Olympics, at the Olympic trials in Oregon. Although she didn't qualify for the Olympics, Flo Jo made a lasting impression on triple jumper Al Joyner. Too shy to ask her out he pinned her picture up in his dorm room. The athletic pair met again four years later at the Olympic trials in Los Angeles. In 1987, Griffith and Joyner finally married, becoming US track and field’s equivalent of a royal family. Florence Griffith-Joyner now had track star Jackie Joyner as a sister-in-law.
Griffith finished fourth in the 200 meters at the inaugural World Championship in 1983. Winning the silver medal at the Olympic trial in Los Angeles in 1984 for the 200 meter race, Flo Jo gained attention, though mostly because of her extremely long and colorful fingernails, and her snazzy running outfit that showed off her beautiful legs. In 1985, she won the final of the Grand Prix with 11.00 seconds.
Despite being arguably among the best female athletes in the country, in 1985 Griffith was forced to rejoin the workaday world to make ends meet. She went back to work at the bank, and earned extra income by giving her friends the kind of flashy manicures and hairstyles she would later become famous for sporting herself.
It wasn't until the Seoul Olympics in 1988 that Florence Griffith Joyner showed the world just what she was made of. In the first heat of the trials, Florence Griffith-Joyner broke the world record for the 100 meters, knocking 16/100ths of a second off the existing time of 10.76 seconds, a mark that had stood for four years.
Because of a strong tailwind, officials ruled that her time could not stand. She promptly showed it had been no fluke, crossing the line in her next race in 10.49 seconds, taking more than a quarter of a second off the record. In the previous 75 years of women's athletics, no sprinter had ever lowered the record by more than a tenth of a second.
In the semi-final and then the final itself, Florence Griffith-Joyner, wearing successively a yellow-striped black leotard and a white fishnet bodysuit, beat the previous world record holder, Evelyn Ashford, by a margin of first five, and then 10 ft. In four races, she had run the four fastest times in the history of the event.
By now "Flo-Jo" was the big favorite for the titles in the sprint events at the 1988 Summer Olympics. In the 100 meter final, she ran a wind-assisted 10.54, winning the gold and beating her nearest rival Evelyn Ashford by 0.3 seconds.
In the 200 meter quarter-final, Florence Griffith Joyner set a world record and then broke that record again winning the final by 0.4 seconds with a time of 21.34.
She also ran in the 4 x 100 meter and won the gold medal and for the first time internationally Flo Jo was part of the 4 x 400 meter relay team, winning a silver medal for her efforts.
Her overall performance was the second greatest by a woman track athlete in the history of the Olympics, beaten only by that of Fanny Blankers-Koen in 1948. Her success in the Seoul Olympics did not go unnoticed. With three gold and one silver medal, Florence Griffith Joyner was the 1988 recipient of the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States. Her 200 meter race victory ranked 98th in British TV Channel 4's 100 Greatest Sporting Moments in 2002. Florence Griffith-Joyner retired from competitive sports shortly afterwards. Staying active Florence Griffith Joyner designed the basketball uniforms for the Indiana Pacers in 1989. In 1995 she was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame
Florence Griffith-Joyner unexpectedly passed away Monday, September 21, 1998, at the young age of 38. Her death from an epileptic seizure at such a young age only added to Flo Jo's mythical status. She was a legend who died before her time.