Monique Henderson was 13 years old when she met Florence Griffith Joyner. FloJo. The great track athlete. The lovely lady with the long fingernails and great clothes.
Tongue-tied and nervous, Henderson was a tentative teenager, a runner too and in awe of the Olympic champion she was meeting. "But you know," Henderson says, "FloJo was the sweetest person you could ever imagine meeting. She talked to me like a normal person. From then on, we were friends."
Henderson is 17 now and a talented runner. The 400 meters is her specialty, not FloJo's sprints. But Henderson, a junior at San Diego Morse High, thinks of FloJo as a role model. Henderson wants to be fashionable, feminine, sweet and also be a fierce, muscular, athletic competitor. "Just like Florence," Henderson says.
On Saturday, she will be one of the competitors at the 33rd WorkSeek.com FloJo Memorial Arcadia Invitational track meet at Citrus College in Glendora. An unwieldy name, perhaps, but the intentions are good.
Florence Griffith Joyner died at the age of 38 in 1998. She was a wife, a mother, she seemed to be in good health and then died in her sleep, at home in Mission Viejo. The cause of death was determined to be an epileptic seizure.
Al Joyner, Florence's husband, has been looking for ways to keep FloJo's legacy vibrant. There is a foundation in Florence's name. The Arcadia meet, one of the best high school track meets in the nation, was happy to accept money from the foundation and honored to put FloJo's name on the meet. Workseek.com is a Laguna Beach company looking for ways to get known among a group of people who will soon be seeking work. Greg Bell, an NFL player for 12 years who has a promotions and marketing company in Orange, has taken an enthusiastic part in advertising the meet. Bell says that because of FloJo's name, Fox Sports Net will televise the meet, tape-delayed, April 23.
"It's good for the sport of track," Al says, "and that's what Florence always wanted. To see track prosper and to see more girls want to run."
And that's what Saturday's meet will be about. Not sponsorship and TV. It will be about a bunch of people who have come to honor, remember, celebrate FloJo.
Henderson is one.
Easter Gabriel is another.
Gabriel is bringing her girls' team from Yates High in Houston. The Texas Relays are also this weekend. "A very big deal in Texas," Gabriel says.
Instead, Gabriel's girls will be in Glendora. Because of FloJo. Gabriel used to compete against FloJo in college meets and with her on some national teams. Gabriel ran for Prairie View A&M, a small, black college. FloJo was running for UCLA, a big, powerful school. "But FloJo was friends with everybody," Gabriel says. "It didn't matter where you were from. We became great friends. She stood for so much good. She loved the sport, she loved to see girls who wanted to be athletes and still be ladies."
When Gabriel heard about the Arcadia meet being named in honor of FloJo and when her team was deemed good enough to be invited, "That was it," Gabriel says. "We were coming. We've been to the Texas Relays. We've never been to a FloJo meet."
Gabriel still has posters of FloJo on her wall. So does Henderson.
Henderson's grandfather, Adam Henderson Sr., was a runner who competed against Jesse Owens. Henderson's dad, Adam Jr., is her coach. FloJo is in her heart. Henderson's meeting with FloJo happened because Griffith Joyner's sister, Elizabeth Tate, coached a rival team in San Diego.
After the first introduction, Henderson would see FloJo often at local track meets. One day, about six months before FloJo died, Henderson says, "My phone rang. It was FloJo. She said she and Al had picked me and two other girls to take to the Simpla meet in Idaho. I couldn't believe it. It was such a shock."
The Simpla meet is the largest indoor high school invitational. It was held at the University of Idaho and Henderson, FloJo, Al and two other young runners flew on a private jet. "It was an experience I'll never forget," Henderson says. "When someone like FloJo has such a belief in you, you feel so special. When we got to the meet, all these media people would be around FloJo all the time and she would always introduce us and ask that they speak to us too."
A teacher pulled Henderson out of class on the day FloJo died. "She told me what happened," Henderson says, speaking slowly, trying not to get emotional. "It was hard news to get."
The rumors that followed, the talk of FloJo's supposed steroid use, talk that had followed her since she shattered the world record in the 100 meters in 1988 with a time of 10.49, a time not approached yet, that is not a part of Henderson's and Gabriel's memories of FloJo. There has never been any proof, they say, and maybe now it doesn't matter.
For what Henderson and Gabriel remember is a woman strong in her beliefs about family, friends, sports and life. That's what brings Henderson and Gabriel to this meet. It is what pushes Al forward every day. The raising of Mary, the daughter he and Florence cherished, and the hope that the good of FloJo will rub off on the next generation of track stars.
Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: email@example.com