Running for Dummies: A Love Story

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: August 20, 2007

PHILADELPHIA — Al Joyner is an Olympic medal winner and trainer. For 19 years, he was in love with the World’s Fastest Woman, sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner. Mrs. Joyner, nicknamed “Flo-Jo”, set world records in track with dazzling speed and brought style to a sport where one would least likely find any.

That fashion sense gave Flo-Jo the impetus to dabble in designing clothes and work on another favorite pastime — writing. Already a nationally known fitness columnist in America, Mrs. Joyner looked to expand on her career as an author with the publication of her book entitled, ” Running for Dummies”. Sadly, she never saw the fruits of her labor, passing away suddenly before its release in 1999.

In true track form, Al Joyner picked up the baton from his wife and ran to the finish line with the book’s completion, and some insight into what the real Flo-Jo was about.

BASN: Is ” Running For Dummies” a technical book like others in the series?

AJ: It is and it’s not. Florence was always a very detail-oriented person who loved to write. She felt people who are looking into running as part of a fitness program needed to know how to gradually work up to a proper level as opposed to attempting to run 10 miles and then turn off to it because they overdid it the first time out. Running has become very popular in the last few years, especially among women; but Florence’s aim was to put out a good “how-to” book for everyone.

BASN: We may one day see someone run as fast as Flo-Jo, but I seriously doubt we’ll ever see anyone do it with such panache as your wife. What inspired the one-leg track outfits?

AJ: Florence was working on designing a suit and she accidentally cut off one of the legs. I started laughing when she showed me what she did and said, ” Just for that, I’m gonna wear this and beat everybody”. And she did.

BASN: Do you think her outfit psyched out the competition?

AJ: Flo said one of the other runners looked at her and said something like, ” If you’re gonna wear something like that, you’d better run fast” (laughs) , but after she won, she started adding colors and patterns, and the rest, like they say, is history.

BASN: You had a lot on your own plate, being a former Olympian; and you saw this talent bloom right in front of you. When did you first notice that Flo-Jo was not just another runner?

AJ: When I first moved to California. We had just started dating and began jogging together. I’d pick up my pace, and then one day I decided, ” Let’s see if I can leave her” — and I couldn’t. Eventually, she started leaving me! She would look at me and say, ” Are you letting me win?” I’d tell her, ” Heck, no”– ’cause if a baby lines up against me to run, I’m gonna dust that baby’s butt.

One day I said flat out, ” Honey, you’re going to run a 10.5″ (world record). Later that year at the Olympic Trials, I was coming into the stadium. I had missed Flo’s heat, but when I heard the announcer say, ” Unbelievable! — 10.60 seconds” — I knew who had won.

BASN: It takes a strong man not to let ego stand in the way of his partner’s success. A lot of the brothers need to pick up on this very critical aspect of relationships.

AJ: Florence had so much love to give that I would’ve been a fool to refuse it. She supported me 100% in all I did, and it was reciprocated with the same love. When you love like that, you can only prosper. To know someone’s going to be in your corner no matter what — it’s a blessing. Lots of guys make that mistake by not recognizing the good things their loved ones do for them every day.

BASN: Are we talking strictly material things (i.e. the woman making more money) or fame and status as well? If so, do you see this as a trap society uses to create larger chasms between women and men, especially black men?

AJ: You should want the best for your partner. People who meant well would say to me, ” Al, you gave up a lot”. Hey — I didn’t give up anything. I knew this woman would be great because she believed in herself, and we both felt nothing was impossible or unattainable. To answer your other question, yes, it is a trap.

You grow up in America and you know if your ability to earn a living is stifled, it’s directly connected to your manhood. Black men know the deck is stacked, but that doesn’t mean you give up. You can only expect to go so far if you don’t believe in yourself. Love is love; but black men and women need to stop viewing each other as adversaries and listen to each other more.

BASN: You’ve buried your loved one, and now you have to deal with the rumor and innuendo regarding drug usage and Mrs. Joyner’s world records being subjected to such scrutiny. Where did the rumors start and who started them?

AJ: It started in 1988, not long after she had set the world record. First they said it was wind-aided. Then when that didn’t hold up, the words started. Like, ” no woman can run that fast”. Then came the Olympics and the Ben Johnson incident, and now everyone’s accusing everyone else. Flo took every test they could come up with. It was sad because the USOC, the IOC, and the IAAF came out and admitted targeting her as a steroid user. She took more tests (drug) than any other athlete. Florence never avoided the question and complied fully with all their nonsense — and it’s sad that my wife had to die to be vindicated.

But the first time it came up was the Olympics. The person who started it was Joaquin Cruz. He said my sister (Olympic decathlon, pentathlon and long jump champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee) ” looked like a gorilla, and Florence looked like a man”. I cornered him some time later around the media. UPI was there, as was the AP, and Cruz is trying to talk his way out of it, crying about how he would ” never say something like that”. But AP had him on tape saying those words, and he was busted.

His jealousy over my wife’s accomplishments and my family did more damage to him than I could ever do. With all the attacks made upon Flo’s reputation, she never retaliated. Not publicly, nor privately.

BASN: So please tell our readers Mrs. Joyner’s true numbers.

AJ: Florence was 5-feet-6 1/2 and 127 pounds of God-given talent. The year she set the world record, she carried only six per cent body fat. Had she decided to do so, Florence could’ve given them something else to talk about.

She was running 22 miles every Wednesday, clocking two hours and 42 minutes consistently, and flirting with the idea of running a marathon. Only four more miles, right? Her goal was to run 30 miles for stamina purposes.

I had her running 160 meters and 240 meter stretches. If you ever look at any of Flo’s past performances, you’ll see she never leans at the tape because the distances at real time were too short.

BASN: When the word came down clearing Flo-Jo’s name, who from the media came back to you and apologized, even if to only say, ” I was just doing my job?”

AJ: You know, it’s interesting. Not one of them came back to say anything conciliatory. Someone from the L.A. Times, a prominent guy, called me and said something, but only because he wanted to do another piece to try and make up. He failed to realize my daughter is going to one day have to deal with this stuff.

None of that matters when you’re putting in that deadline, though. One thing Florence always did whenever we traveled, she wrote letters and sent postcards to our daughter saying why we had to leave. So no matter what others say, my daughter knows better ’cause she got it from the source.

BASN: Did Florence ever think of dropping track for other pursuits?

AJ: She wanted to run again, but I suggested she should leave while she was on top. Florence started out wanting to win a gold medal. She has four Olympic medals, two world records, and had become a track and field superstar.

Flo also was looking into acting, writing and being a mom. That alone should’ve registered in someone’s brain. There’s no way she could ever take steroids. Florence believed in faith and hard work. If that’s enhancement, then so be it.

BASN: Now that there has been some re-addressing of the negative issues, what do you think about in your peaceful moments about your wife and your life together ?

AJ: I think about how blessed I am. I prayed for someone to love me like this, and she came to me. That I met, courted, and married my soulmate. People ask me if I’ll ever find a love like that again, and I’ve gotta say no ’cause I’m not looking. Florence was destined to be great.

This woman caught a jack rabbit when she was five years old. It was her destiny to be the Fastest Woman in the World. Some agency did a study and deduced that no woman would be able to run 10.6 at 100 meters until the year 2010. Well, Florence came out and shot ’em down. They never bothered to get a woman’s point of view.

BASN: In finishing this work your wife started, what stands out foremost in your mind?

AJ: This is a labor of love. I know Florence wouldn’t let my dream die, so I’m not about to give up on hers. There’s a 16-page section devoted to what Florence was about.

For every copy sold, one dollar will be earmarked for scholarship programs and helping young people to fulfill their dreams. I hope the readers will see that this was someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, and someone’s next door neighbor.

In spite of the fact they tried to dog her out and disgrace her, she showed that when you love something, you don’t let negativity turn you away.

I offer one of my favorite interviews as a bouquet to you; to find someone is task enough — but to do it amidst the added pressure of the bright lights of fame is an even greater feat.

If everyone’s as honest as Al Joyner was about his beloved Flo-Jo, we would all bust our butts to remain open and vulnerable in the face of cynicism, apathy, setbacks and bitterness to aspire to gain that greatest of gifts — love.