Flo-Jo, the woman that even the fastest woman alive Shericka Jackson couldn’t beat

Flo-Jo, the woman that even the fastest woman alive Shericka Jackson couldn’t beat

“The fastest woman alive!” The commentator boomed just as Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson blurred down the track, arms pumping, knees kicking, to an incredible time of 21:45 to take gold at the World Athletics Championships. She would still be the second fastest woman in history. The fastest was the great Florence Griffith Joyner, aka Flo Jo, who lived a fast dreaming life as a runner, a free spirit, an exuberant fashionista to whom the famous singer Beyonce would nod in respect, once wearing a ‘flo-jo’ costume , and who died tragically young, in her sleep after an epileptic seizure, a death she had predicted for some time. They say it’s better to die young than to disappear, and Flo Jo unfortunately became its most famous symbolic figure. But boy could she run. Her life is quite a story.

Controversy followed her. No one could catch her on the field; much tried it. Her fans would say she ran like the wind; critics said she was wind-backed. Her power was celebrated throughout the world; some whispered it was drug-fueled. Her style made the world go gaga; the haters scoffed at the six-inch vibrant nails. Beyonce wore her bodysuit; they said Flo-Jo’s career was a case of style over substance. She retired in 87′ to have a child; they said she ran away for fear of drug tests. She never failed a single drug test. She was tested 11 times in Seoul alone, nothing illegal was found. She had premonitions of death, only knew death could catch her; and it did.

But her final act was her greatest posthumous run. With her death, and his second marriage, a promise which she had wrested from him during her premonitions, her daughter Mary had begun to drift in life. As a 7-year-old, with her father a broken man, it was Mary who called her near and dear ones to tell them about her mother’s death. Her mother’s void would overtake her, and she drifted into her teenage years, distant and gripped by the blues.

It was then that her father produced Flo-Jo’s letter to her – marked “not to be opened until the age of 16” – and the zest for life returned to Mary. She became a singer-songwriter, performer, and she sang at the Olympic Track and Field Trials in 2012. That’s her mother, who was the rock star of track and field.

Amazingly, in 1985, after she had won gold at the ’84 Olympics, Flo Jo was working in a bank. Training and the runner’s life had receded, and her main side hustle was styling – nail manicures, fashion clothes. She had started out as a bank teller before cashing in her fortune on the tracks, but retired again to the gray world of banking. She did her friends’ nails and hair at night, charging $45 to $200 for intricate braids.

Overweight (her trainer would say she was 60 pounds heavier), but unencumbered by the world, she lived her life as her trainers, husband Al Joyner and brother-in-law Bob Kersee stirred her into action. Her husband Al, whom she met in 1980 and married in ’87, was an Olympic triple jump champion and brother of Olympic heptathlete and long jump legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The marriage made her return to the tracks. She was supposed to train at 4:00. Moved by Canadian Ben Johnson’s power start at the 1987 World Championships, Al had her increase her weight training. Reportedly, weighing 130 pounds, she could squat 320 pounds. “To run like a man, you have to train like a man,” she said.

But before the epic run in Seoul 88, the fashionista arrived. “Dress well to look good. Look good to feel good. And it feels good to run fast!” she would say. Six-inch acrylic nails materialized, hair flowed, face glittered with make-up, and her custom-designed running gear was a rage—from one-legged bodysuits, speed-skating hoodies, color-blocked bikini bottoms, detailed lace and asymmetric outfits. Flamboyance had a other name: Flo Jo.

The fashion sense was innate. She could knit, sew and crochet. From the age of 7 she flirted with her own designer clothes. Around the late 70s, early 80s, before she had become famous, she was running in New York and caught the eye of the famous running coach Pat Connolly who once wrote about that moment in the NYT: “She was so pretty, the eyes mine often accompanied her as she jogged by. I had to control an urge to engage her in conversation, ask if she was a singer. There were no outrageous nails or hairstyles yet; no one-legged tights; no layers of makeup; no bulging muscles to power strong mechanical steps. What I saw was an intensity in her dark eyes, the kind that comes from hunger; the kind that revealed that this young woman had heart.”

And her heart was free and wild.

“You can wear whatever you want if you’re ready to go when the guns go off. You’re going to run fast anyway. Makeup is not going to stop you. The outfit is not going to stop you”, is one of her famous quotes. In 1988, she began wearing what she called “one-leggers,” which came after she accidentally cut one leg shorter than the other. “I started laughing and she said, ‘I’m wearing this.’ And that’s how it started, Joyner said. Around her home she put little motivational notes. The time she wanted to win a race, quotes from the 23rd Psalm of the Bible, and her most favorite was “I can because I believe I can.”

The training raced before Seoul. So did her love of clothes. She packed over 100 outfits, her husband said with a laugh. She painted her six-inch nails on fleek with red, blue, gold, white. She was ready to enter dreams of athletic children with ambition, girls who wanted to be empowered to be themselves like tennis star Serene Williams, wide-eyed children and adoring, amused adults.

“I spend about 15 minutes doing my makeup,” she once told The Boston Globe. “I spend a lot longer preparing for a race.”

On a Jet Fuel

On July 16, 1988, at trials in Indianapolis ahead of Seoul, superstar athletes and coaches would fall in awe. In the 100m she was behind Evelyn Ashword’s record of 10.76. Her husband kept urging her that she could do it since 10.5 was his timing and she beat him in training. When the clock stopped after the run, the world stopped in awe: 10.49, it read.

“Nobody can run that fast. The heat must be doing something to the electronics, ABC announcer Marty Liquori said. Omega Timing examined the anemometer and timing system and found no faults. Still, many, including her husband, believe it was wind-assisted. Later, the Association of Athletics Statisticians would star it “probably heavily wind-aided but recognized as world record”. The next day, in the final, she set another record, crossing in 10.61 seconds.

“If you go back and watch the film of her running mechanics in ’84 and then again in ’88, that’s the difference. That’s the secret. Work hard, sleep right, eat right. And then she had a special gift from God, Al Joyner told BBC Sport. “I said, ‘Honey, go out there and make them think you’re using jet fuel’.”

In Seoul she ran the 100m in 10.54 (wind aided), in the last five meters her arms were flung out and a glowing smile spread across her face. One of the great sports pictures of our time.

In the 200m semi-final, she broke a nine-year-old world record before, in less than two hours, she would break it again in the final, clocking 21.34 seconds. It’s been 34 years, no one has caught up with her yet.

Death did it. In 1998, at the age of 38, a rare disease and lesion on her brain that caused seizures, a problem (cavernous angioma) that had only appeared after the birth of her daughter, Flo Jo died in her sleep.

Husband Al called 911 and cried, “my wife is gone. My wife is gone.” They told him to perform CPR, but he found no pulse. He later recalled talking to her, “that’s not how the story should end. I will go before you. You’re going to see Mary grow up…” Just then Mary ran into the room, “what’s wrong with Mom?” The paramedics arrived just then, and soon pronounced her dead. In layman’s terms, she had suffocated in her sleep.

The paramedics wanted to give him his wedding ring and a nail they had broken. The critics were still muttering about the effects of drugs. The extended post-mortem and toxicology tests carried out over two days rejected them: it revealed no use of steroids or performance-enhancing drugs in her system. “She took the ultimate drug test. I told them to test for everything, says Al to Espn. “And there was nothing there, and there never was.” Nothing but a great spirit.

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