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She Wanted to Be 'Everything'

FloJo: The Olympic track champion was proud of who she was and where she came from.

September 22, 1998|KAREN GRIGSBY BATES | Karen Grigsby Bates is a regular contributor to this page

Watching her streak across the track, I could only think of one thing: cheetah. Florence Griffith Joyner, who died Monday apparently from a heart seizure at the age of 38, was like a cheetah when she ran: strong, sleek, powerfully muscled and incredibly beautiful. You half expected to see the track behind her burst into flame as she zipped by, leaving twin trails of smoldering ash in her wake.

She gave the phrase "fast girl" an entirely new definition. She was so fast, in fact, that her women's world records for the 100 and 200 meters have yet to be matched, let alone surpassed.

The crowds screaming her name in Seoul at the 1988 Olympics didn't bother with her official moniker. To them, the colorful blur that sped around the track, the diva in the outrageously long fingernails, hair flying like a banner and provocative running gear was simply FloJo. It suited her.

Florence Delorez Griffith was born in Watts, the seventh of 11 children, and grew up in the Jordan Downs housing projects. Her mother was a teacher and her dad an electrician. The Griffiths divorced early on, but both were active participants in their children's lives. Even as a young child, little Dee Dee, as she was then nicknamed, liked a challenge. Family lore has it she coached herself to catch a jack rabbit on a dare from her father when, at 5, she stayed with him for a year in the Mojave Desert. Typically, once she actually did it, she moved on to other goals. Been there, done that.

It was the same after Seoul. After winning three gold medals and one silver, FloJo tried her hand at a number of things: She was a sports commentator for the networks, she modeled, she was featured in endorsements and she even took a turn at acting when she did guest stints on a soap opera and a sitcom. Mindful of the splash her sports clothing made, she formed a company to manufacture modified versions of it for the general public. And she and her husband Al Joyner, himself an Olympic gold medalist (the triple-jump, 1984) were partners in an enterprise that would market her trademark nail styles to women and girls.

In recent years, she was chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness. Once someone asked her in grade school what she wanted to be when she grew up, little Dee Dee Joyner said, simply, "Everything. I want to be everything." She came damn close.

She was proud of who she was and where she came from. She always urged young people to persevere in their dreams, even in the face of taunts and discouragement. She didn't mind being a role model. "Little girls come up to me and say, 'I want to be just like you,' " she once said. "I say, 'Don't want to be like me. Be better than me. Shoot higher.' "

She was the fastest woman in the world, the sizzle and the steak. She proved once and for all that strength and beauty are not mutually exclusive, and spent much of her post-Olympic life emphasizing that to women too enamored of--and tyrannized by--the social X-ray aesthetic. For her, thin was not "in."

At her peak, FloJo seemed to be having as much fun winning as we were having watching her. Her sass, her sexiness and her speed forever changed women's track. She was with us for too short a time, left a good party way too early. And we will miss her.

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