SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Olympic sprint champion Florence Griffith Joyner suffocated from an epileptic seizure in her sleep last month, authorities said Thursday.
They said an autopsy found no indication of drug use in the death of the 38-year-old dazzling track star known simply as FloJo.
“In layman’s terms, she suffocated,” said Dr. Richard Fukumoto, chief of forensics for the Orange County Sheriff’s-Coroner department.
Lt. Frank Fitzpatrick, head of forensic sciences for the sheriff’s office, said toxicology tests showed she had taken about one tablet each of the over-the-counter painkiller Tylenol and antihistamine Benadryl, but “there was nothing unusual in terms of drugs.”
The seizure involved a congenital blood vessel abnormality. Dr. Barbara Zaias said Griffith Joyner had a “cavernous angioma” on the front left part of her brain, a condition found in about 25 percent of the population.
Many people with the condition live their whole lives without knowing they have it, but in others it can cause headaches and seizures, she said.
Fukumoto said Griffith Joyner apparently had been lying on her stomach and the seizure possibly caused her limbs to stiffen and turn her head to the right, where her breathing was constricted by covers and pillows.
The medical experts said the abnormality has never been associated with any banned or illegal substances. Griffith Joyner had been shadowed by speculation about use of banned substances, but she never failed a drug test and denied ever using drugs.
Other scientists said at a news conference that her heart appeared to be normal.
Stylish, smooth and muscular, Griffith Joyner won three Olympic gold medals at the 1988 Seoul Games and set world records that still stand in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.
Her flowing black hair, skin-tight outfits and glittering 4-inch fingernails brought a dash of flash to track and field. A line of athletic shoes and clothes that she had been working on was scheduled to go on sale next month.
“We now hope that this great Olympic champion, wife and mother can rest in peace, and that her millions of admirers around the world will celebrate her legacy to sport and children every day,” U.S. Olympic Committee president Bill Hybl said. “It is time for the whispers and dark allegations to cease.”
About 1 in 200 Americans suffer from epilepsy, which can be caused by a variety of problems, including head injury, brain infection, stroke, drug use, drug withdrawal or chemical imbalance on the body. Some people are born with it; others develop it later in life.
Griffith Joyner died at her Mission Viejo home on Sept. 21, and investigators had been trying since then to determine the exact cause.
Her husband, 1984 Olympic triple jump champion Al Joyner, called paramedics after discovering she was not breathing that morning.
Rumors that she had used banned substances angered friends and relatives. At her funeral, Bob Kersee, a former coach and relative by marriage, told Mary Joyner, her 7-year-old daughter:
“Mary, your momma wants you to know that those tarnishing, poisonous lies can’t hurt her no more. So you don’t have to worry about that venomous, deadly scorpion sting of the reporters. It don’t hurt her no more,” Kersee said. “See God is protecting her. See God is her coach now.”