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Florence Griffith Joyner Read by Jordan Chiles

Flo Jo was never afraid to be who she was: fast. A runner all her life, Flo Jo went on to become the first American woman to win four medals in a single Olympics. Her one-legged bodysuits and long nails left dazzled audiences around the world.

Get to Know Jordan Chiles

Jordan became an elite competitive gymnast at just 11 years old, and since then has competed on the Junior US National Team, the USA Junior Team, the Senior US National Team, and the US Women’s Olympic Gymnastics Team. She has won gold medals in competitions around the world, and in 2021 became the first ever women’s all-around Winter Cup champion by finishing first in the all-around, vault, uneven bars and balance beam during the WOGA Classic. In 2020, she represented the United States at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, where she won a silver medal for team USA. Then in 2022, Jordan made history at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships as one of 3 Black gymnasts to top the podium for the first time ever. She is also an outspoken advocate for female athletes, focusing on body positivity and mental health. You can catch Jordan at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games!

Credits

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Elena Favilli and written by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Olympic gymnast Jordan Chiles. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

It was a hot summer morning at the 1988 Olympic Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, and all eyes were on the running track. This was the women’s 100 meters, the fastest race in the Olympics, and whoever won the gold medal would officially become the fastest woman in the world.

Florence Griffith Joyner jogged up to her slot in lane number three. She was decked out in her team’s uniform, along with glittering bracelets, long, flowing hair, bright red lipstick, and six-inch-long fingernails painted red, white, blue and gold.

Nobody had ever seen an athlete look this glamorous at the Olympics. They’d always appeared stern and neutral. But not Flo Jo. She believed that fashion fueled her. And she was determined to win this race with style.

Flo Jo crouched down into her starting position. Her feet found the block behind her, and she tucked her chin to her chest. She could feel her muscles strong and taut, prepared to do what they did best. Flo Jo was just like a firecracker. Lit and ready to explode.

I’m Jordan Chiles. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.

On this episode, Florence Griffith Joyner, one of the fastest female runners of all time.

Florence Griffith was born in Los Angeles, California, the seventh of eleven children. The Griffith household was very hectic, but they loved each other dearly and were very close.

Florence was always full of energy and exciting new ideas — especially when it came to sports and fashion. She loved sewing her own clothes for her Barbie dolls and constantly tried on her mother’s dresses. She did handstand competitions with her siblings and neighbors and rode to the store on a unicycle. When she played ball with her brothers in the street, Florence was fast and fierce. If she lost or got knocked down, she bounced right back up, eager to prove herself. She also dressed up for their games, wearing her good clothes and combing her hair. She didn’t need to look scrappy to feel just as strong.

Florence’s competitive spirit led her to join the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation, where she could try out all kinds of sports — basketball, volleyball, football and track. She liked all the sports well enough, but it was running that really ignited a flame inside her. And she was good at it!

Soon she was running track at school, thrilled to be part of the team. Her teachers and classmates were amazed by her speed and the bright smile that always erupted when she crossed the finish line. But there was one thing that Florence couldn’t stand. She hated their uniforms. She didn’t understand why they had to wear such silly, drab outfits. Florence convinced her relay teammates to pair long tights with their track uniforms. She was sure it would help fuel their fires too.

As Florence liked to say,
“Dress good to look good. Look good to feel good. And feel good to run fast!”

Whether it was her outfits, her determination, her muscle power, or a combination of all three, Florence was soon setting school records in the long jump and sprints.

And that was just the beginning.

Sprinting and striding may have given Florence a great sense of freedom and power, but her life outside of running was challenging. Track and field wasn’t a popular sport at the time and resources to finance athletes’ careers, especially female athletes, were still not available.

Florence started college at California State University at Northridge, but soon had to drop out to work and help support her family. It took a while, but with the help of her coach, she was able to get financial aid to study at UCLA. It was here that she hoped to get professional training and guidance. But when she wasn’t at the track or going to classes, Florence still had to get a job to make ends meet. This meant long nights working as a beautician, braiding hair and doing nails. It was exhausting.

When Florence was twenty years old, she was selected to go to the American Olympic trials. It was thrilling, but nerve-wracking. Florence had never competed at this level before. She gave it her all, but still placed fourth. There was little time to be disappointed though. Florence was soon head over heels in love.

At those same Olympic trials, the famous triple jumper Al Joyner saw Florence sprint. He was speechless. He had never seen a woman so fast, or so beautiful! Al waited for her to finish running and then introduced himself. She was impressed with how respectful and polite he was. An established athlete himself, Al offered to coach Florence on her path to the Olympics.

She  was delighted to say yes, and went back to UCLA smitten. For the next few years, they trained and competed as their friendship blossomed into romance. Florence graduated from UCLA with a degree in psychology and soon after won her first silver medal at the Olympics! And in 1987, when Florence and Al got married, she officially became Florence Griffith Joyner, or as she liked to be called, Flo Jo.

As she trained for the greatest competition of her life, Flo Jo’s routine became even more intense. She began every day with 90 minutes of weight lifting, then sprinted home to cook her special shrimp creole for dinner; rushed back out for some braiding jobs and came back home for some painting or writing before her last workout of the day: either another run, or a set of curls on the hamstring machine that sat in the Joyner kitchen.

She was improving in both the 100 and 200 meter races, her muscles propelling her around the track faster and faster. And her clothes were getting better, too!

At the U.S Olympic Trials in Indianapolis on July 16, 1988, Flo Jo donned a purple one-legger speedsuit with a turquoise patterned bikini bottom. In the quarterfinal round of the 100 meters, she demolished the competition and set a new world record of 10 point 49 seconds.

“No one can run that fast. The heat must be doing something to the electronics,” the ABC announcer said skeptically.

But Flo Jo could not be held back by the doubters. People were clearly stunned by her speed and strength and looking for ways to prove she was cheating or wrong. Flo Jo stayed calm. She knew she’d won, fair and square. And just as her mother had taught her to do, Flo  Jo treated everyone with kindness — even those who didn’t believe in her. She focused all her energy into having fun and pursuing her goals.

And in 1988, that goal was to take the Seoul Olympics by storm.

And that brings us back to that hot summer morning at the Olympic Stadium. Crouched on the starting line, Flo Jo took a deep breath and tucked her head down, feeling the fire inside her start to burn brighter and brighter.

Ready, Set, Go!

All eight runners threw themselves off the starting blocks, their bodies flying over the track. Flo Jo quickly pulled ahead of the group, the crowd shouting and cheering her on.

Halfway through the race, Flo Jo switched gears and accelerated so fast that everybody else lagged 5 meters behind her. She was leaving them in the dust! Realizing her huge lead, Flo Jo threw up her arms well before crossing the finish line, a dazzling smile spreading across her face. She knew nobody could catch her…

The gold medal was hers!

After that historic win, Flo Jo went on to win two more gold medals at the Seoul Olympics: one for the 200 meters and one for the 4X100 relay. Then, at the last minute, she was asked to run in the 4X400 relay, hoping to bring home a fourth gold medal. She and her team ran hard and won the silver.

Sure, it wasn’t the gold, but her split was the fastest in US history at the time. She treasured that silver medal, maybe even more than the golds, because it symbolized the trust that her country put in her and she loved being part of a powerful team.

Flo Jo announced her retirement just 5 months after those record-breaking Olympic runs. She felt like she couldn’t maintain this level of fitness as well as traveling and starting a family. Plus, she wanted to pursue other careers, and continue to build her legacy off the track.

She designed two fashion lines in Japan, and fans recognized her on the street calling “Joyner-san!”

Next she was asked to design uniforms for the American basketball team, the Pacers. Designing for big basketball playing men stretched her creativity — how could she make their clothes unique without her favorite pinks or lace? In the end, she designed many different possibilities, and the team picked one with big yellow and white rays down the side.

Her creativity led her to all kinds of exciting pursuits — she wrote children’s books; made guest appearances on TV sitcoms; and signed contracts  with Coca-Cola and Mitsubishi Motors. She was named co-chairwoman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and worked with inner-city children through her Flo-Jo International Foundation. She even had a Flo-Jo Barbie doll, complete with its own “one-legger” speedsuit.

Flo Jo loved traveling the world and sharing her different passions. She looked forward to cultivating the next great record-setters and never tired of being the best-dressed person in the room.

Tragically, Flo Jo died very young of an unexpected illness. Yet, she remains a role model for so many young athletes hoping to follow in her lightning fast footsteps. Her speed and grace, along with her still unbeaten record, inspire people all over the globe.

And when we talk about all that she accomplished — being the fastest, the strongest, the most fashionable — that’s only part of the story.

Flo Jo’s spectacular smile and indomitable spirit are beyond compare. The ways she faced criticism and doubt, the way she took care of her family, her body and her soul — these are what make her a true rebel.

As Flo Jo used to say, “I believe in the impossible, because no one else does”.