Florence Griffith Joyner: One of the Most Successful Female Athletes of All Time

To date, Florence Griffith Joyner remains the fastest female runner of all time. Despite the fact that she set them more than three decades ago now, her world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints remain unbroken.

The African-American athlete rose to fame in the late 1980s, gaining notoriety not only for her sporting prowess, but also her extrovert personal style and flamboyant fashion sense, gaining notoriety for her iconic bodysuits and ornate fingernails. Florence Griffith Joyner was the first American female to win four Olympic medals in a single year, claiming three golds and a silver at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

Wowing the audience with her 10.49-second 100-meter performance, Griffith Joyner was equally standout in her fashion sense, dazzling the crowds in asymmetrical, one-legged tracksuits, her nails decorated with Stars and Stripes. A former hair and nail technician, Griffith Joyner was unique from other competitors of her era, embracing fashion as part of her performance strategy, rather than just a distraction.

Read on for more about one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Born in Los Angeles, California on December 21, 1959, Florence Griffith was the seventh of 11 children born to Robert Griffith, who worked as an electronic engineer, and his wife, Florence Griffith, who was a tailor. Griffith and her family grew up in Littlerock, California, before they relocated to the Jordan Downs complex in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Displaying an interest in both fashion and athletics from a young age, Florence Griffith joined the Sugar Ray Robinson Organization while she was in elementary school, running in track events at the weekends. When she was 14, Florence Griffith won the Jesse Owens National Youth Games, claiming the title again the following year.

While attending Jordan High School, Griffith ran track, convincing her teammates to wear tights with their uniforms too. As a senior in 1978, she came sixth at the CIF California State Meet, finishing behind her future teammates, Pam Marshall and Alice Brown. By the time she graduated Jordan High School, Griffith had set several high school sprinting and long jump records.

At California State University, Griffith joined Alice Brown and Jeanette Bolden on the track team under the tutelage of Coach Bob Kersee. In her first year with the team, they won the national championship.

Florence Griffith experienced a significant setback when financial difficulties forced her to drop out of university, taking a job as a bank teller to support her family. Fortunately, Bob Kersee intervened, helping her to access financial aid, enabling Griffith to return to college in 1980. She attended the University of California at Los Angeles where Kersee was then working. Griffith graduated from UCLA in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Griffith, Bolden, and Brown all qualified for tryouts for the 1980 Summer Olympics. The trio competed in the 100-meter final. Brown won the event, with Griffith finishing last. Florence Griffith also competed in the 200-meter event, finishing a close fourth, narrowly missing out on a qualifying position. As it transpired, no US athletes competed in the Olympics that year, after the US Government boycotted the Moscow event in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Florence Griffith married Al Joyner, a gold medal winning triple jumper, in 1984. She made her Olympic debut in the same year at the Los Angeles Olympics, where she won silver in the 200-meter event.

In the 1988 US Olympic trials, Griffith Joyner established a new record in the 100-meter sprint. She went on win a silver medal and three golds at the Seoul Olympics. Griffith Joyner also won silver and gold in the World Championships in Rome in 1987.

The athlete retired from athletics in 1989, concentrating her efforts on new business opportunities. She remained a public figure through various designing, acting, and endorsement deals.

Florence Griffith Joyner won the James E. Sullivan Award in 1989. A talented artist and painter, her work was exhibited as part of the Art of The Olympians.

In 1995, Griffith Joyner was also inducted by USA Track and Field to its Hall of Fame. As a child, Griffin attended the 102nd Street School in Los Angeles. The school was relaunched as the Griffith Joyner Elementary School in 2000. In addition, a park in her Mission Viejo neighborhood was also dedicated in her honor.

Florence Griffith Joyner was also recognized among the 100 Women of the Year (1988) by Time.

Following her retirement from sport, the record-breaking sprinter established the Florence Griffith Joyner Youth Foundation in 1992. She created the charitable organization to support children from underprivileged backgrounds.

Keen to inspire the next generation of sportsmen and women, Florence Griffith Joyner imparted the importance of dreaming and working towards the accomplishment of goals. She cited the objective of fostering social interaction, self-esteem, fun, and enjoyment in youth, helping young people to develop a positive self-image while promoting sports to help them stay physically fit and maintain an active, healthy lifestyle.

Florence Griffith Joyner died in 1998. The 38-year-old Olympic gold medalist suffocated after experiencing a major epileptic seizure in her sleep. Her foundation lives on, providing young people with the support and skills they need to succeed.

Douglas Healy is a Springfield, Missouri-based attorney with nearly 20 years of legal experience.