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Alfredrick Alphonzo (Al) Joyner is a track and field star who won the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles for the triple jump, the first American in eight decades to win the event and the first African American. He attended Arkansas State University (ASU), where he later returned as a coach, and was the winner of the prestigious Jim Thorpe award, honoring the best American field athlete at the Olympics. He married track legend Florence Griffith, who came to be known as “Flo Jo” after her marriage to Joyner.
Al Joyner Jr. was born on January 19, 1960, in East St. Louis, Illinois, to Alfred and Mary Joyner, both then in their teens. Alfred Joyner Sr. worked in construction and on the railroad while Mary Joyner was a nurse’s aide. Joyner’s younger sister, Jackie, born in 1962, went on to win six Olympic medals in track and field, including three gold, and was named “Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century” by Sports Illustrated for Women. The siblings had two younger sisters, Angela and Deborah. As their parents struggled to make ends meet for their growing family, Joyner and his sister Jackie became involved in athletics at the local Mary Brown Community Center, which had started a new program in track. Joyner became a star athlete at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis, though he says he was not a great athlete growing up and had to train hard, recalling, “I remember Jackie and me crying together in a back room in that house, swearing that someday we were going to make it. Make it out. Make things different.”
In 1980, he competed in the Olympic trials at the University of Oregon. While he did not make the American team that year, at registration for the trials, he met a runner from Los Angeles, California—Florence Griffith, his future wife. In 1982, he enrolled in ASU in Jonesboro (Craighead County), where he was coached by Guy Kochel in track and field and was a member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. His younger sister Deborah also attended ASU, where she played basketball.
At ASU, Joyner competed in the triple jump, which is similar to the long jump but consists of a hop and a step before the jump and thus is often called the “hop, skip, and jump.” During his college career in the mid-1980s, he was a three-time National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) All-American indoor champion, three-time NCAA All-American outdoor champion, and four-time Southland Conference champion. He also placed eighth among the top triple jumpers in the world at the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
In 1984, Joyner made the American Olympic team and traveled to Los Angeles. His event was the first after the opening ceremonies, which he skipped in order to focus on his performance in the triple jump. With a leap of 17.26 meters, he won the gold medal. He was the first American in eighty years to win Olympic gold in the triple jump after Meyer Prinstein won the event at the St. Louis, Missouri, games in 1904.
Joyner then won the prestigious Jim Thorpe Award in 1984, given every four years to honor the person named the best American competitor in a field event at the Olympic Games. Also that year, he and sister Jackie became the first brother-sister American teammates to win medals at the same games.
Joyner returned to ASU, not as a student but as an assistant track and field coach. He later moved to California. On October 10, 1987, he wed Florence Griffith. With his help as her coach, she won three gold medals and one silver medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea, and received the 1988 James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States. Soon afterward, she retired from competitive sports to pursue other interests. Their daughter, Mary Ruth, was born on November 15, 1990. Around this time, Joyner joined his brother-in-law, Bob Kersee, as an assistant coach at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1993, Joyner was inducted into the Arkansas State University Track and Field Hall of Fame.
On September 21, 1998, Joyner’s wife died unexpectedly in her sleep from a congenital defect in the brain. Afterward, he began touring to promote her recently published book Running for Dummies. He also directed several charities in his late wife’s name.
In 1997, Joyner was inducted into the Arkansas Track and Field Hall of Fame and in 1999 the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. In August 2000, he returned to the track and field staff at UCLA as assistant coach and women’s jumps coach. He also trained to compete in the men’s triple jump trials for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, but was forced to withdraw due to a knee injury. He was hired to write about track and field at the 2000 Olympic Games for SportsToday.com.
On June 28, 2003, he married Alisha Biehn in Laguna Niguel, California, with whom he has a son and a daughter. He accepted a job as track coach for the U. S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, and directs the Flo Jo Community Empowerment Foundation and the Final Kick Marketing Group.
For additional information:
Friend, Tom. “Dream Chaser.”ESPN.com. http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=090826/flojo (accessed June 11, 2014).
Noden, Merrill. “One Joyner Who Didn’t Join In.” Sports Illustrated, July 25, 1988, p. 18.
Official Website of Al Joyner. http://www.cmgww.com/sports/aljoyner (accessed June 11, 2014).
Nancy HendricksArkansas State University
Last Updated 6/11/2014
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