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Very Fancy, Very Fast U.S. sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner is certainly eye-catching -- if, that is, you can catch her

Sept. 14, 1988
Sept. 14, 1988

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Sept. 14, 1988

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Fencing
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Very Fancy, Very Fast U.S. sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner is certainly eye-catching -- if, that is, you can catch her

ONE SUNDAY MORNING IN JULY of 1987, on the way home from church,
Al Joyner and Florence Griffith took her young niece and nephew,
Khalisha and Larry Wiggs, to a Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant in Los
Angeles. There the kids played carnival games and fired impatient
looks at the adults, heightening an air of exquisite tension
''You can't keep him waiting,'' whispered Khalisha to Griffith.
''Do you know what it took for him to ask?''
''Khalisha, you're 10 years old,'' said Griffith. ''I know what he
went through, but you don't.''
Ah, but Khalisha and eight-year-old Larry knew a great deal. Their
fascinating, beloved aunt, the world and Olympic 200-meter silver
medalist, was a woman of independence and beauty. They knew these
gifts had served her well in sports, in poetry, in fashion, in every
aspect of her life save one: the finding of a good, true man.
But this man Joyner, the 1984 Olympic triple jump champion and the
older brother of heptathlon world-record holder Jackie Joyner-Kersee,
was as warm and comfortable as a pair of custom-made Adidas. ''He was
patient,'' says Florence, 28. ''He was honest. He was too honest
sometimes, but the longer we knew each other, the more common cares
and interests we found.''
What's more, the 28-year-old Joyner, aptly nicknamed Sweetwater
since his lifeguard days in East St. Louis, found unusual favor with
the vast clan that constitutes Florence's family. Griffith is one of
11 children and has, at last count, 30 nieces and nephews. None could
be bolder than Khalisha and Larry.
''You're good for her,'' they had said earlier to Al. ''You've
just got to ask her to marry you. Here, we'll tell you what to say. .
. .''
Because Joyner harbored precisely those feelings for Florence, and
is an easy, coachable guy, he actually followed their advice. He did
ask. And Griffith, ever wary, ever thoughtful, didn't give him an
answer, or say when she would. Joyner sensed that this too was a
test, so he steeled himself to wait. And that was how things stood
when they hit Chuck E. Cheese's that Sunday.
For playing Skee-Ball, Larry won a prize, a little yellow rubber
charm in the shape of the word Yes.
Khalisha grabbed it and took it to her aunt. ''This is perfect!''
the girl hissed, trembling. ''Just give him this.''
Florence slowly smiled and took Al's hand under the table. He
looked up. She curled his fingers around the charm. He stared at her
with curiosity and opened his palm. And there was his answer.
He sagged with happiness.
''It's about time!'' cried Khalisha, throwing herself at the
lovers. ''You're lucky he still wants you, making him wait that
long!''
On Oct. 10, 1987, Florence Delorez Griffith and Alfrederick
Alphonzo Joyner were married in Las Vegas, an event recorded in
dozens of pictures and albums in the Joyners' apartment in Van Nuys,
Calif. But only now, almost a year ; later, do we see their full debt
to Khalisha and Larry. After her marriage Griffith Joyner began to
completely relax, to ultimately bloom.
She seems a paradox: shy but bravely immune to ridicule. ''I was
very quiet, always,'' she says in her velvet contralto. ''But in
kindergarten I would braid my hair with one braid sticking straight
up. I'd go all day like that, and when kids teased me, I'd just laugh
with them.''
The family lived in the projects of L.A., and at age seven,
Florence started attending the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation's
sports days there. She raced and beat the boys. But when she met
Sugar Ray himself, she says, ''I was too shy to ever look him in the
eye.''
Her father, Robert, was an electronics technician; her mother, for
whom she was named, was a seamstress; her grandmother Gertrude Scott,
a beautician. ''I learned crocheting, knitting, hair and nails,''
says Griffith Joyner. ''I'd do the hair of all the kids in the
neighborhood. My mother frowned on watching TV, so I read. Poetry was
my favorite. I always kept a diary.''
Encouraged in all her interests by her mother, Florence grew up a
natural eccentric, different not for the sake of being different, but
for the sake of being herself. While in high school, tired of the
family dog and its fleas, she got a boa constrictor and named it
Brandy. ''I bathed her and lotioned her,'' she says. Her tone is
fond. ''Every week or two I'd go down to the pet shop and get a
couple mice or rats and feed them to her. When she shed, I saved all
of her skin and painted it different colors. She got to be five feet
long. I got put out of a mall once for having her around my neck.
They said people were afraid.''
After graduating from L.A.'s Jordan High in 1978, where she had
set school records in the sprints and long jump, she went to Cal
State-Northridge. But she couldn't afford to return for her sophomore
year, so she worked as a bank teller until a young Northridge sprint
coach named Bobby Kersee helped her apply for financial aid.
When Kersee took an assistant's job at UCLA in 1980, Griffith
reluctantly followed him to Westwood. ''I had a 3.25 GPA in business
((at Cal State- Northridge)), but UCLA didn't even offer my major. I
had to switch to psychology. But my running was starting up, and I
knew that Bobby was the best coach for me. So -- it kind of hurts to
say this -- I chose athletics over academics.''
By 1982 she was NCAA champion in the 200 with a 22.39, and showing
talent in the 400. ''The team at UCLA was so much fun,'' she says.
''We'd always get together for Bobby's birthday. We'd pitch in to buy
him a suit, to make him presentable for the indoor season.''
Griffith was way beyond presentable. When she let her nails grow
into rainbow talons, it affected one teammate much like a squeeze
from Brandy might have. ''She said, 'We all know you're different,'
'' Griffith Joyner recalls. '' 'Why do you have to show it?' That
went in one ear and out the other.''
In 1984, running with long and intricately decorated fingernails,
she placed second to teammate Valerie Brisco-Hooks in the Olympic
200.
There followed a couple of quiet years, in which she worked as a
bank secretary and developed a clientele for her fiendishly elaborate
masterpieces of hair-braiding. ''Four to six hours is average,'' she
says. ''But it can take up to 13 for the jobs with all the tiny
individual braids.'' Depending upon the style, she charges $45 to
$200. ''Remember, they last five months,'' she says.
She drifted away from hard training and grew a little plump, but a
scolding from Kersee got her across the mid-Olympiad hump. And Al
Joyner began paying her his eager attention. ''He devoted so much
time to me I was overwhelmed,'' says Florence. ''He's so positive.
He's the guy I dreamed about.''
She took second in the 1987 World Championship 200 in Rome, and
contributed a decisive leg to the U.S.'s victorious 4 X 100-meter
relay team. That gold medal soon found its way around Al's neck, and
they were married a month later.
Their new life was maniacally full. Last winter her typical day
included four hours of clerical work in Anheuser-Busch's employee
relations department in Van Nuys; a workout, supervised more often by
her husband than by Kersee, including an hour and a half in the
weight room; a sprint home to cook her famed shrimp creole for
dinner; then a braiding job, or her own painting and writing in the
evening.
She finished each day with another workout, either a run or some
rugged sets of leg curls on the hamstring-leg extension machine that
takes the place of their kitchen table. This work strengthened the
gluteal and hamstring muscles that blast her out of the blocks. She
was becoming a 100-meter woman as well as a 200-meter one.
And looking wilder all the time. Griffith Joyner asserts that, for
her, form assists function. ''Colors excite me,'' she says.
''Sprinting is excitement.'' By accident, Griffith Joyner came up
with the one-legged look. ''I was trying for a new idea,'' she says,
''and had cut one leg off some tights, and happened to look in the
mirror and said, 'That might work.' ''
It worked revealingly, in more ways than one. It made each leg
distinct and helped delineate the length and lift of each stride,
which are impressively long and high. And it worked at the Olympic
trials in Indianapolis in July, when she wore a stunning succession
of one-legged and two-legged bodysuits that included a lacy outfit
that she called an ''athletic negligee.'' She broke Evelyn Ashford's
100-meter world record of 10.76 by the equivalent of 2 1/2 yards,
with a 10.49. That time is still causing aftershocks. Clocked by
hand, the old-fashioned way, it would be better than 10.3, or a 9.4
for 100 yards. An older generation knows what that means. O.J.
Simpson was a 9.4 sprinter.
The idea that a beautiful woman in lingerie can run as fast as all
but a handful of men in the NFL has stirred such interest that the
Joyners have been besieged, and Florence is not one to pass
unrecognized. ''That woman had an unbelievable face, and that
speed!'' breathed a waiter at Spago, the fashionable L.A. restaurant
where Florence and Al dined after returning from the trials.
In one respect the Joyners moved with alacrity. They employed the
posttrials period to end her coach-athlete relationship with Kersee.
Well, he'll still be family, but Al is the coach now, and Edwin
Moses's agent, Gordon Baskin, will bargain for races and sponsors.
Also, Al and Florence are moving to a new apartment in Orange County.

This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1988 issue

The training life will continue after Seoul, at least for Al, who
just missed making the Olympic team in the triple jump and is
determined to make the 1992 team as a high hurdler. But anyone
expecting to see Florence racing in peel-away snakeskin knickers for
four more years should poke around the Joyners' apartment.
''I'm building my hope chest,'' says Florence.
''Hope room,'' says Al. ''It's like a wall of Toys R Us.''
It's one more astonishment: a room piled to the ceiling with
dolls, balls, baby shoes, blocks and games, all in their boxes. The
closet is stuffed with baby clothes, boys' and girls'. ''We get
things on sale,'' says Florence. ''Most of the clothes are from
Europe.''
''The styles will all have changed by the time we have kids,''
says her husband jubilantly. ''They'll look different in all this
stuff. No one else will have anything like it.''
Thus are more eccentrics brought into this hidebound world. Thank
goodness they'll have cousins Khalisha and Larry to guide them.