Close your eyes and speak her stage name: Flo-Jo. An image forms in the mind. She's running impossibly fast, drawing clear from others in the race while wearing a uniform that's the child of Nike and Victoria's Secret. Her long nails rake the air in abrupt, efficient strokes, and her raven hair trails behind her. At the finish, an expressionless face suddenly beams. It's a picture of speed and beauty and joy, and, once witnessed, it's unforgettable.
Florence Griffith Joyner was not alone among athletes in burning herself into the public memory. Jordan, Tiger, Big Mac. The list grows. But Flo-Jo was alone in her sport. When she died in her sleep early Monday morning of an apparent heart seizure at age 38, she left a legacy not just of decade-old world records but also of a personal and athletic style that mixed with a savvy business acumen to propel her far beyond the arena in which she competed. Track and field is fighting for survival precisely for the lack of electric stars like Flo-Jo, who even at the time of her death, 10 years past her prime, remained in possession of her milk mustache.
In the summer of 1988 Griffith Joyner (who was married to triple jumper Al Joyner and was the sister-in-law of Jackie Joyner-Kersee) exploded from the workaday sprinter who had won the silver medal in the 200 meters at the boycott-thinned 1984 Olympics into the fastest woman in history. She ran the 100 in 10.49 seconds in a heat at that year's U.S. Olympic Trials, a world record that wasn't approached until this month, when Marion Jones ran 10.65. Flo-Jo won three gold medals at the '88 Games and set a world record of 21.34 in the 200. Jones, the second-fastest woman ever, ran 21.62 this year, still far off the mark. "She was just on another level," says '84 Olympic 100 champion Evelyn Ashford, who was second to Flo-Jo in '88.
It wasn't simply the speed with which Flo-Jo rose to greatness that formed her legend but also the style. She wore one-legged unitards and lace attachments when other women were still wearing shorts. She wore makeup and grew spectacularly long nails. She melded athleticism and glamour like no other woman. Sprint coach and former U.S. Olympian John Smith saw Flo-Jo run in the spring of 1988 and was stunned by her progress and her appearance. "Florence—we all called her Florence then—was always a hard worker and she had good form," says Smith, "but that year she had the outfits and the nails and the name, and she was in the best shape of her life. Suddenly, she just had everything figured out. It was beautiful to watch."
In retirement Griffith Joyner served as a co-chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and designed uniforms for the Indiana Pacers. She vowed to one day run a marathon. Whatever she did, wherever she went, she remained more recognizable than any active track and field athlete.
Flo-Jo also was followed to her death by unsubstantiated accusations that performance-enhancing drugs were responsible for her fast times. Those rumors won't fade with her passing, because heart disease is a known side effect of anabolic steroid use. But the link between sports and chemistry has grown stronger in the years since Flo-Jo ran; now home run kings legally gobble natural enhancers and college football players sprinkle Creatine on their cereal.
Florence Griffith Joyner died young, leaving a seven-year-old daughter and a husband whose own mother died at 37. She ran fast and beautifully, and it's best now to remember only that, to let the whispers fall silent.