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A SPECIAL FIRE

Oct. 10, 1988
Oct. 10, 1988

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Oct. 10, 1988

Chicago-Buffalo
Seoul '88
NHL 1988-89

A SPECIAL FIRE

Nowhere did the Olympic flame burn brighter than among the amazing women (and men) of the triumphant Griffith-Joyner-Kersee clan

"Go hard as I can out of the blocks," Florence Griffith Joyner said last Thursday, recalling for the press how she had plotted out the Olympic 200-meter. "Make up the staggers on everybody in the turn. Stay relaxed. Use all I have coming home."

This is an article from the Oct. 10, 1988 issue Original Layout

Griffith Joyner came home with tresses flying and her left knee lifting, as it always does, an inch higher than her right, giving the suggestion of a gallop to her stride. She came home in a magnificent world record of 21.34 seconds, improving on the 21.56 she ran in the semifinals, which in turn improved on the 21.71 that had stood for nine years. She came home with a leap across the line and a yell of complex and irresistible pleasure, and then dropped to a prayer of thanksgiving, with her head touching the track.

Rising to her knees, she saw her husband, Al Joyner, yipping and dancing in an Olympic Stadium tunnel. "Come here," she said, holding out her arms. "Come here!"

He ran to her, caught her up, spun her twice around in a graceful pirouette, and they embraced. It took great athletes to do this so well, to such effect. Tears flowed as if it were a wedding.

"A family affair," said Olympic heptathlon and long jump champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee as she watched, and she had reason to know, for she is Al Joyner's sister. More than that, these two women—these sisters-in-law—won or shared five sixths of the U.S. gold medals in women's track and field, and each broke a world record. These UCLA teammates and products of eight years of coaching by Jackie's husband, Bob Kersee, overturned the world and the Olympic balance of power in sprinting and long jumping. They showed that brilliance needs a nation no larger than a family to bloom.

They're competitors. "Jackie started all this stuff," says Florence. "She sets a record, and I have to go out and get even. After her heptathlon record in the trials, here was Bobby saying, 'You're not going to let your sister-in-law do this to you....' "

Yet they're not interchangeable. To hear Bob Kersee tell it, Jackie has to be horsewhipped to run any distance. To hear Al Joyner tell it, Florence has to be reined in. Flo-Jo has run as much as 13 miles a day and plans someday to enter a marathon. "She helped me with road runs for my 800-meter training," says Jackie.

They have shared Al—brother to one and husband to the other. They have shared Bob—husband and coach (Al, a triple jumper, also used to be coached by Kersee). They have always gotten along famously, but now they must weather Florence's switch from Bob's World Class Athletic Club to a new coach, Al, and a new business manager. "I don't call it a stolen star," says Bob, who naturally would have preferred that Florence stay with him. "I hold no personal contract with any athlete. She was free to do what she thought best. We have to not let gold medals and endorsements interfere with the family."

Jackie, as she usually does, puts it more simply: "Remember, no matter what we say, we all love each other."

Griffith Joyner, this overnight success who has been a world-class sprinter for seven years, has a sense of history. "Here's what sprinting is all about," she said in a reflective moment last week. "It's Evelyn Ashford chasing records set by Marita Koch and Marlies Göhr. It's Heike Drechsler chasing the records set by Ashford. It's me chasing records set by Drechsler. It's the wanting and the hard work that go into the chase."

These were not flimsy standards that have been raised up in the continuing competition between Americans and East Germans. Koch, who retired in 1987, and Drechsler coheld the 200-meter mark of 21.71. Indeed, the alabaster-muscled Drechsler was thought to have a chance at a Carl Lewis-like sweep of the sprint, long jump and relay gold medals in Seoul. Yet at the Games, Drechsler and her teammate Silke Gladisch-Möller, the 1987 world champion in the 100 and 200, seemed less prepared than the Americans. And, of course, the East Germans faced a sprinter as light-footed and strong as the world has ever seen.

In the Olympic 100, Griffith Joyner was first in a wind-aided 10.54 and Drechsler third, behind Ashford. Then, last week, came the 200. "This is the one I want more than any," Griffith Joyner said. "The 200 gold and the record."

There was never a group of 200 medalists as arresting as these. Drechsler leaned desperately to seize third from Jamaica's Merlene Ottey in 21.95. Ahead flew Jamaica's Grace Jackson, who came within .01 of a second of the old world record with her 21.72. No one paid any attention, because four meters in front of her was Griffith Joyner. Her 21.34 was an improvement of the world record that rivaled her 10.49 in the 100 in July.

If Griffith Joyner wanted the 200, Joyner-Kersee wanted the long jump. But before the finals last Thursday, she didn't think the signs were good. "Usually after a heptathlon [in which she had set a world record during the Games' first week] I can tell if I'm not going to do well jumping. My quads get tired."

Her quads were tired. "Think indefatigable," she told herself and then watched Drechsler reach 23'8¼" on her fourth jump. Joyner-Kersee's fourth was a foul. She had but two jumps left. On her fifth attempt, Joyner-Kersee went high and long and landed almost perfectly, sitting down into the hole made by her heels, which meant that she had wrung every millimeter of distance from this leap. She had gone an Olympic-record 24'3½".

Joyner-Kersee ran back down the runway with her face in her hands, her emotions soaring from relief to ecstatic tears. "I couldn't be content," she would say, "but, boy, I was happy."

Drechsler was down to her last chance. She squinted into the sun, trying to reassemble the pieces of her competitive heart, finally ran and jumped, reaching only 23'6¼", whereupon she cried.

If there's an honorary member of the Joyner family, it's Drechsler, whom the family feels has been required to compete in too many events. At the press conference after the long jump, Drechsler whispered and joked with Al and Jackie so winningly that observers pined for her to be free to enjoy these stress-bonded friends at a time other than in battle.

Pined, too, for an accurate public perception of the family's deeds in this time of suspicion. Ben Johnson's drug disqualification inevitably cast a film of doubt over the most gleaming Olympic performances. "Hey, it's sad for me," said Joyner-Kersee late last week. "I worked hard to get here. I haven't used drugs. It's time and patience and work. So it's just not fair to point fingers, to blame us all."

"Florence runs 10.49 in the Olympic trials, and people say 'wind,' " said Al. "She does 21.34 here, and they say 'drugs.' "

It happens that Johnson had passed along training information to Florence. Last year, after he ran a 100 record of 9.83 at the World Championships in Rome, Al and Florence asked him what on earth he was doing to effect his remarkable improvement. He outlined his extensive lifting program.

"We believed it when Ben told us how he lifted weights," says Al. "We did it, believed in it, and it worked."

"If you want to run like a man, you have to train like a man," says Florence, "and weights are the main factor." She can do squats with 320 pounds on her shoulders.

That helped her bear up on Saturday, the last day of track competition. Because of her speed on the turn, Griffith Joyner ran the third leg on the U.S. 4 X 100 relay team. Leadoff runners Alice Brown and Sheila Echols presented her with a slight deficit, but she drew even with East Germany's Ingrid Lange as she neared the exchange with the U.S. anchor, Ashford. But, whoa, Ashford started late. Griffith Joyner nearly went past her, as if she were going to finish the race herself.

Ashford quickly recovered and closed on her old rival Göhr, and hung with the East German for 50 meters. Then she came on like the Ashford of 1984. She brought the U.S. home a meter in front, in 41.98.

Griffith Joyner, puffing hard, skipped the victory lap to report for the 4 X 400 relay. This was the happiest surprise of the meet, because although she was the 1983 NCAA 400 champion, Flo-Jo hadn't run the event in the trials.

U.S. coaches Terry Crawford and Fred Thompson had raised the possibility of her inclusion on the team only two days before, after the 200. "There was risk in it," said Crawford, "but there was the opportunity to make history here, with four gold medals for Florence and a world record for the team."

Still, the Soviets, running with 400 world champion Olga Bryzgina as anchor, had to be favored. The U.S. would have to stay close and then see what Griffith Joyner could do. "Don't pass on the turns," said Valerie Brisco, who would take the third leg, to Florence.

Denean Howard led off and not only stayed close to the U.S.S.R.'s Tatyana Ledovskaia, but also passed her in the stretch with a 49.8 leg. Then Diane Dixon's 49.1 was overhauled by Olga Nazarova's 47.9. Brisco received the baton seven meters down, but her 48.5 leg allowed her to hand the stick to Griffith Joyner only two meters back.

Florence fell in behind Bryzgina. "I felt I could go around her, but Terry Crawford had told me to just stay near until the stretch," she said. But Bryzgina, whose strength is her last 200, ran a perfectly judged race. When Griffith Joyner came into the home stretch three meters behind, she could not gain. Bryzgina slowed, and Griffith Joyner got a meter, but the race was running out. Bryzgina held those two meters. The times were 3:15.18 for the U.S.S.R. and 3:15.51 for the U.S. Both were under the world record of 3:15.92 set by East Germany in 1984.

Griffith Joyner's leg was a 48.1, and she will always be mildly haunted by what might have happened if she had passed Bryzgina on the backstretch, but she was content. "These days have been a dream come true," she said on Sunday, "plus more that I didn't dream. I know I said the 200 gold was the one I wanted, but last night I laid out all the medals, and I felt that the silver was the special one, because of the team's trust in giving me the chance. That silver is gold to me."

Early on Sunday morning, Florence had to put all the medals around her neck and go with Jackie to Olympic Stadium for a photography session. Bob watched the posing and giggling for a while, and then wandered off. He thought about how it had finally come to pass that the U.S. had sent truly seasoned women, such as those in his family, plus Ashford and Louise Ritter, the gold medalist in the high jump, up against East Germany's experienced women.

Kersee, who also coaches Brisco, thought how that wonderful relay leg might be enough to forestall her retiring. He watched the show-jumping horses that had taken over the practice field for this closing day. "They are beautiful," he said. "Someday I'd like to train thoroughbreds. They are all individuals, with different personalities. You've got to get to know them to train them."

Then he turned to look at Jackie and Florence, their medals clinking in the October air. "It's not so different from what I do now," he said.

TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIEROn her fifth jump, Joyner-Kersee leapt to an Olympic-record 24'3½" and the gold.PHOTOJOHN IACONOAfter taking the baton from Flo-Jo, Ashford (in red) sped past G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áhr (in blue) in the 4 X 100.PHOTOMANNY MILLANGriffith Joyner ran a world-record 21.34 in the 200 to beat Gladisch-M‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áller (277) and Jackson.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERFor Griffith Joyner, getting a silver in the 4 X 400 was no letdown.THREE ILLUSTRATIONS