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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Remembrances of FloJo's Sprint Through Life

September 23, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

A woman in her underwear walks by, outdoors. I blink. I squint into an Indianapolis sun. I turn to a guy sitting next to me. I point and say, "That woman over there's in her underwear."

"No, she's not," he says.

I look again.

"Lingerie," I say. "She's in lingerie."

"Look again," he says.

He hands me his binoculars. There are thousands of us in the bleachers of a stadium. It is the summer of 1988. It is 100 degrees in the shade. I focus on a woman in white lace, walking across a field of grass.

I ask, "WHO is that?"

"FloJo," the guy says.

"What's she do?"

"She wins," he says.

*

Months after the U.S. Olympic trials are behind her, Florence Griffith Joyner, her husband Al and I go for a midnight stroll through Seoul.

We are at the 1988 Summer Olympics, on the other side of the globe. People stop and flashbulbs pop. FloJo floats through a hotel lobby in a warmup suit, with her Olympic gold medals around her neck. She enters a restaurant. Everyone in the room rises to give her an ovation.

Nobody asks, "WHO is that?"

She is known on sight now. FloJo has just run her way to another world record. This one's in the women's 200-meter dash. She does it in a USA track suit--you can't choose your own clothes at an Olympics--and with fingernails longer than a falcon's talons, painted with gold polka dots and Olympic rings.

On the victory stand, Al scoops up Florence and spins her like they're Fred and Ginger. A few minutes later, FloJo is handed a telegram. She slits it open manually; this is one woman with no need of a letter opener.

"Congratulations from President Reagan?"

"No," she says. "It's from Vogue magazine."

Fashion editors want her to pose. It is the only way anyone can catch Florence Griffith Joyner standing still.

She is still tingling by the time we finish dinner. What a week this has been. What a long way she is from Watts, where she grew up, where she was the seventh of 11 kids, where she went to kindergarten with one braid in her hair standing straight up, where she went to high school once with a pet boa constrictor around her neck.

Fastest woman in the world. What a ring that has to it.

"How did you get so fast?" she would be asked, again and again, in language after language. And she would think of traveling from Watts to the Mojave Desert to visit her divorced father, and she'd tell her favorite fib.

"Chasing jack rabbits," she'd say.

I know different. Her husband Al knows different. We know how Florence trains. We know how Florence thinks. We know how Florence diets.

Well, maybe not diets.

At our dinner in Seoul, she eats a pizza.

Upstairs, in their room, we talk about what made FloJo the hard-body she is today.

"Before we go to bed," Al says, "I have to watch her do her sit-ups."

"How many?" I ask.

"Oh, 3,000," he says.

I laugh about as hard as I know how to laugh. I pat my tummy and say, "What a coincidence. Me too!"

But that's not all. Every day, she jogs three or four miles, jumps rope, lifts weights, does squats, does leg curls, bets money with Al that if she drops and does 40 push-ups, he has to do 45, which means she'll do 50.

I tell FloJo that I did 100 push-ups. She asks when, and I say, "From 1967 to 1987."

"You can do it!" she says, this woman who has always dreamed of making the impossible possible. "You can do anything you want in this world."

"What do you want to do?" I ask.

I mean when her career's over, when she's done running, done Vogueing, when the world's fastest woman finally slows down.

"The truth?" FloJo asks, raising 6-inch nails as if taking a Scout oath. "I want to write children's books."

*

Ten years after: I haven't seen Florence Griffith Joyner much, but everybody's talking about her again.

About a girl whose given name was Delorez and whose friends called her Dee Dee.

About a woman who served on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and spoke to schoolkids every chance she got.

About someone whose 38 years went by just like she did--much too fast.

I can still see her walking across that field. I can still see her running around that track. I never saw anyone like her.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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