In Her Shoes: How Pat Summitt and Flo Jo ascended to cultural-icon status
In celebration of Women's History Month, espnW presents "In Her Shoes," a series of essays and features highlighting women, their journeys and their perspectives on sports.
As girls, we are always looking. Scanning the cultural landscape for women who model our desires, spoken and not. Women who shine so brightly they can't be missed, their light a beacon of what's possible, evidence that the lives we long for can happen.
As a teen in the 1980s, the women who lit my path could not have been more different, at least on the outside. Florence Griffith Joyner was Beyonce before Beyonce -- sparkling, stunning excellence that made everyone around her seem as dynamic as driftwood. Which is no doubt why Beyonce herself chose to dress as Flo Jo for Halloween in 2018, icon celebrating icon, game recognizing game.
A track and field comet, the fastest woman of all time, Flo Jo was not just the best, but the boldest, confirmation you could embrace exactly who you were; could emphasize your difference, your peculiarity, your brashness, your confidence, that you didn't have to "behave" in all the ways female athletes were expected to.
Griffith Joyner, whose speed records in the 100 and 200 meters have stood since her death at 38 in 1998 from an epileptic seizure, wasn't content with simply dominating. She dominated with breathtaking style. She designed her own outfits -- cut one leg from her running suits, opted for neon color schemes and lightning bolts, wore jewelry and six-inch nails long as talons, preferred to keep her hair down. Some of her choices were critiqued as gilding the lily or distracting from her physical performance, but to girls watching like me they were knockout punches of glamour that proved you didn't have to play by the quiet, earnest, just-happy-to-be-here good-girl rules.
Griffith Joyner made her presence as noisy as possible, made herself a shimmering object that commanded focus, got the whole world to pay attention to the astonishing accomplishments of an African-American woman and launch her past Olympic glory into the celebrity firmament, boosting her legacy from a line in the record books to that of a woman who pulled the levers of culture.
In 1989, after her retirement, the LJN toy company released a Flo Jo doll, "an all American beauty ... right on track," that came with sneakers and nail stickers. The box encouraged buyers to do as Flo Jo did and "let your dreams run free." Griffith Joyner understood how to capture her moment, to make people look, to subvert their biases and prejudices, to become a brand before making yourself a brand was even a thing. For all her records, and cage rattling, she did nothing so revolutionary as refuse to tame herself.
The same could be said for Lady Vols head coach Pat Summitt, a basketball strategy prodigy who bootstrapped her way from hooping in her Tennessee family barn to become the winningest college coach of all time. Summitt frequently shared a story about her father, a tobacco farmer, who left his 12-year-old daughter alone in a hayfield with a tractor and the words, "When I come back, this work better be done." Summitt was given no detailed instruction, no road map, she had to call on her own intellect and gumption to get the job done.
And so, it would be for her storied career, winning a silver medal as a player on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, a team she would later coach to gold in 1984. In 38 years at Tennessee, Summitt never had a losing season, netting eight national championships, her approach controlled, firm, disciplined (she advised her players to always make their beds in the morning), echoing her rural upbringing where even small decisions have potentially large consequences and chickens always come home to roost.
Summitt was a hard ass. But she was also a shelter from the storm for her players, who often spoke of her as a second mother, the type of woman who held herself to such high standards it was near impossible not to do the same in her presence. Summitt became a mirror that reflected an excellence her girls never grasped they had; an X-ray that revealed their spine. She was also an accelerant for character, teaching women by example that we are made of steel and grit and more resilience than we knew, lessons that in the end had little to do with basketball and everything to do with walking tall through a world that would prefer we bow.
Like Griffith Joyner, Summitt died too soon, at 64 from complications of early-onset Alzheimer's disease. After her initial diagnosis, Summitt was advised by some to retire, slink quietly into the shadows, to which she shot back, "Do you know who you are dealing with?"
Hewn of similar mettle and give-no-effs poise, Summitt and Griffith Joyner forged their own paths to eminence and singularity, showing all of us watching how it could be done, and more vitally, that there was more than one way to do it. You could be a flashy diva. You could be a no-nonsense farmer's daughter. What you didn't have to be, what their dominance from opposite aesthetic poles made the case for, was a new kind of women's power, one that was above all, in every way, unapologetic.
Griffith Joyner and Summitt were never sorry for who they were or where they came from. Never sorry for chasing greatness out loud. These were not women who asked for permission. Who valued manners above passion. These were women lit from within by fires and furies. As girls, we are always looking. And in Summitt and Griffith Joyner, we saw.