August 09, 2012
By Joy Childs
Sentinel Contributing Writer
“… I’ve raised an Olympian …Wow! …”
—Statement by Natalie Douglas, mother of gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas, to the Huffington Post upon her win
Delores Griffith knows that feeling. As the mother of Florence Griffith-Joyner, that’s much like how she felt when her daughter won Olympic gold in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea.
Griffith-Joyner would no doubt be in London for the Olympics right now. She would have gotten a kick out of Sanya Richards-Ross and Dee Dee Trotter’s performances there. “Flo Jo,” who still holds the world records for the 100 meters and 200 meters — and who was dubbed the “fastest woman alive” — might have even been their coach.
Though she passed away in 1998, Griffith-Joyner is still a huge presence in track, her feats, her aura, her spirit still mentioned at the recent Olympics track and field events.
But it takes her mother to give us her truth about her famous Olympian daughter, called Dee Dee by family and friends.
Hailing from Henderson, N.C., Griffith came to California to be with a sister, who was working on her Ph.D. at UCLA, and to go to school but ended up getting married to a man from Nashville, Tenn., and having 11 children. Asked their names in order, she consults a clock that bears their names on the wall and ticks them off: Bobby, Weldon, Vivian, Kathleen (a successful real estate agent), Robert (a successful businessman), Elizabeth aka “Cissy,” Florence, Joseph, Lemuel, Gale and Eugene.
Were Griffith-Joyner’s talents genetic? Even in her 80s, Mrs. Griffith, whose slender build and beautiful brown skin bear the visage of someone who may have been yesteryear’s track star, explains — “Yes — but we didn’t call it ‘track’ back then … We ‘ran’ at gym time … And my mother ran a beauty shop, and she would give me one minute to get from home to that beauty shop … and I would run all through town …” She laughs at the memory.
Though she and her husband and children lived in Littlerock, CA (which is 11 miles southeast of Palmdale) for a bit, Griffith and her children eventually moved to the Jordan Downs projects in Watts to a five-bedroom residence.
Asked how she managed as a single woman to instill values in 11 kids in a Watts housing project, she recalled fondly the “family pow-wows.” They were held every Thursday and each week a different child was tasked to pick a Bible verse to speak on. Also, each child got a chance to confess their wrongdoing that week as well as what Griffith had done wrong.
Now some mothers could have easily focused their attention and resources on Griffith-Joyner — something Griffith had seen other mothers do, which she loathed. She says she promised God that if she had children she would be a mother to each of them and never compare them.
There’s one funny story about Griffith’s earliest memories of her track star daughter’s talents as only a mother could remember: “When she was in the walker, we called her “Lightening” because when she started to walk, she did not walk — she ran all through the house! … And then — oh — and when they were young and we lived in the desert, in the backyard, I would play racing with them …I would line them up … I was the starter and they would run to me …”
The following is an excerpt from a recent interview Griffith had with the Los Angeles Sentinel:
LAS: So you knew way back then she could run fast. [Both laugh.] … And so when did she get serious about track?
DG: When she was about 7, she started running at 102nd Street School … And Mrs. Annie Hall asked if the kids could join the Sugar Ray Robinson Organization. And I let them join. And every weekend she’d come and pick them up and take them to their track meets, and as they grew, they just enjoyed it so much … They couldn’t go if they didn’t get their work done on Friday. So on Saturday mornings, they got up to be ready to go with Ms. Hall …
All her years at Jordan High School, she did very well. And then she went to [California State University at] Northridge because she was working at a bank. And that’s where Bob Kersee confronted her [about running track] … And she came home and told me about it and she asked me what I thought about it … and I told her that I believe that at 18, it’s the first day of the rest of your life …You have to make your own decision ... and Bob talked to her, and she transferred from Northridge to UCLA.
LAS: Did she ever say straight out that she wanted to go to the Olympics?
DG: My cousin was out here from New York, and he talked to her a lot … And he told me she told him she was going to the Olympics when she was 12 or 13.
Her greatest achievement
LAS: To you, what was her greatest achievement?
DG: I still think 1980 — the year she went to Eugene, Oregon. That was her first tryout for the Olympics and, though she came in fourth place, I expressed to her, ‘You’re still a winner because to think that you went out there — you went to Eugene Oregon! Think about how many people are trying to do things now and they don’t succeed.’ But she didn’t give up. It was still her dream to go to the Olympics.
LAS: And she qualified to go to the Olympics in 1984? … That wasn’t her greatest achievement to you?
DG: To be truthful with you, I never thought of the Olympics as thee Olympics. I never thought of it being as big as it was. It wasn’t until she really got into it and she talked to me and told me different things that I realized what she was doing ..
At this point Mrs. Griffith brought out one of Griffith’s many bibles, explaining:
“I told her when she started traveling overseas and everything, I told her, ‘Baby, you have to take your Bible with you and take God with you.’ I said, ‘Momma cannot be with you always.’ I said, ‘The only thing you can do is pray.’
Moving on to the allegations of steroid/drug use, Griffith, responding to the question of how all that affected her, sighed and said:
“It made me very, very angry and hurt ’cause you would have to have known her to know that this was not true … And as much time as we spent together, as a mother, you would know if your child is taking drugs. Every drug test she took, she had a little something they gave her that was legal so …
“I was cleaning up her house one time and I found all these little things on a hook [film], and I was gonna throw them away but she said, ‘Momma, no — don’t do that. That’s the result of my drug test …’ so she kept all of them so after she told me that and I saw them for myself, it just really unnerved me ...
LAS: Would you ever allow for [the possibility of] there being another side of her that you as a mother just couldn’t have seen? A hidden side of her?
DS: Like I say …having talked to her and all, if there was a hidden side of her, it was really a hidden side … but she always respected me and gave me the honor [of the truth] as a parent.