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Medical Center Statue Brings FloJo Alive in Hearts of Many

Honors: Husband Al Joyner and daughter Mary are on hand to unveil the tribute to the Olympic athlete.

May 22, 1999|MICHAEL LUO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a moment, they were whole again: Al, Mary and Florence.

Eight months to the day after Al Joyner and his daughter Mary awoke to find Florence Griffith Joyner had passed away in her sleep, her family was on hand Friday in Laguna Hills to unveil a bronze statue of the woman the world knew and loved as FloJo.

For Al, the ceremony was heart-rending, especially when he and 8-year-old Mary posed for photographers alongside the statue, both of them leaning in close and hugging the cold metal.

"Seeing it and feeling it, I almost think it's her," he said. But "all I have is her spirit."

The slightly larger-than-life statue is based on a photograph of Griffith Joyner with her arms flung in the air, her trademark long nails visible, as she crossed the finish line to win the 100-meter sprint in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Commissioned by Saddleback Memorial Medical Center, where Griffith Joyner once was a patient, the statue is meant as a permanent tribute to a woman who symbolized "grace, integrity and originality," said Barry S. Arbuckle, the medical center's chief executive officer.

Griffith Joyner burst upon the world scene in the late 1980s as an athlete who was both powerful and glamorous, turning as many heads with her provocative bodysuits and colorful 6-inch-nails as her record-shattering times. Her 100-meter victory was one of her three gold-medal triumphs at the Seoul Olympics.

Before her sudden death of an epileptic attack at age 38, Griffith Joyner lived in Mission Viejo with Al and Mary.

The statue's unveiling Friday coincided with the announcement of 18-year-old Ashley Furst as the winner of a Griffith Joyner memorial scholarship.

Furst, a Laguna Hills High School senior, was last year's Orange County champion in the 400 meters and boasts a 4.03 GPA.

Furst wrote about FloJo, whom she met at an indoor track meet more than a year ago, in her college application essay to Harvard University, where she will be going this fall.

"FloJo is the standard, both as an athlete and as a human being, by which I measure myself," she said.

But most of those who gathered just outside the hospital came to see the moment when Al and Mary stepped to the podium.

As her father spoke, Mary stood just in front of him, her head not even visible behind the podium and its bevy of microphones.

Managing his wife's legacy has become virtually a full-time job for Al Joyner, who is currently working on what he hopes will be an animated FloJo cartoon series.

The steady stream of memorial activities gives him a degree of comfort, Joyner said.

They ensure that "nobody's forgetting my wife for who she is," he said.

Joyner, himself a gold medal triple jumper in the 1984 Games and now approaching 40, is training again, hoping at a shot at the 2000 Olympics.

Even the training is a tribute to his wife, he said.

But Griffith Joyner's greatest legacy will be Mary, friends and family members agreed.

As Joyner blinked back tears, Mary, clad in a blue dress and white sneakers, never stopped smiling throughout.

"Mary's incredible," said Denelle Sykes, who was Griffith Joyner's best friend and is Mary's godmother. "She keeps us together."

Even during the grieving process, "she's always showing happiness to the public," Sykes said. "That's just like her mom."

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