Wait Training : L.B. Runner Kerri Zaleski Sets Sights on Olympics--Years Down the Road

May 16, 1985|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Kerri Zaleski, wearing pink lipstick and pearl earrings, runs.

Tall and supple, she moves in the liquid way of a gazelle, cutting through the wind, which, except for sweeping up her short, sun-streaked hair, is no match for her.

Her cleats silently chew the spongy black track in a workout at Cal State Long Beach. Her knees and arms pump, her eyes are focused straight ahead. She is wind herself.

And then her coach yells "Go" and she bursts into an even higher gear, pounding toward an imaginary finish line.

"That was beautiful," the coach shouts.

For Zaleski, 17, a senior at Millikan High School who has run 800 meters faster than any high school girl in history, this goes on for a couple of hours every day.

Striving for 1988 Olympics

She is striving for the 1988 Olympics or, more logically, the 1992 Olympics when she will be 24, an age when many women reach their running maturity.

The commercial opportunities in the sport also appeal to her. "If I can make money (through purses and endorsements) and run fast, that would be great," she said.

But her immediate goal is to run the 800 in 2 minutes and 4 seconds this year, which would be more than a second faster than her record.

And although seconds in track trim about as easily as dull scissors, her coach, Dave Rodda, believes she will break two minutes within two years. (That would still leave her six seconds slower than the world record.)

Risking cries of deserter, Zaleski decided not to run this year for Millikan. She has let the 44-year-old Rodda, coach of the Coast Athletics Club and a women's track coach since 1963, guide her future. He is emphasizing speed and top competition. He is, she says, her best friend.

Her next race will be at 12:45 p.m. Saturday in the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA's Drake Stadium, where she goes against, among other top stars, Olympic silver medalist Kim Gallagher.

Ran Circles Around Her Mother

Zaleski's talent first became apparent when she was 12 and tagged along on her mother Carole's 10-K runs.

"I would be dying and she would be running circles around me," Carole recalled. "She had energy that was incredible.

"At Marshall Junior High they had little runs around the school building. Kerri won every one--she even beat the boys."

A Marshall physical education teacher, Mark Ur, steered her to Rodda.

"It's not like I wanted to go out and run all the time or anything," Zaleski said. "It was easy for me. I could do well not trying that hard."

As a sophomore, she set the national high school record by running the 800 in 2:05.59, a time she has yet to better. Later that season, she won the state championship in the 800.

Last year, Zaleski, who lives in Long Beach, won the junior nationals but before that she lost the 800 in the state high school finals to Trina Hull of Compton. It was Zaleski's second loss to Hull, the only high school opponent who defeated her.

Her decision not to run this year at Millikan upset Rod Petkovic, who was her coach there.

"I'm not disappointed because she's doing what she wants to do, but I'm sad because you're going to have an athlete of her caliber once in a lifetime," said Petkovic, who believes Zaleski's strength will better suit her for the 1500-meter run in the future.

"It's hard to have a 2:05 runner in school who's not doing anything, but if she doesn't think she's getting anything out of it she shouldn't be here. With her on the team we could have been Moore League champions this year.

"She can run for a track club all her life, but some people think more of themselves. She was always an individual type. She never has been part of the team spirit. She was there for herself."

But Rodda says, "I don't want to hear about school loyalty. She gave the school two tremendous years."

And Zaleski, content with her individualism, says, "I'm real happy with the way it is."

She explained her decision:

"I like to run high school but it's all those dual meets on dirt tracks and then CIF and the state meet. You can't really run quality when you have to run all those. I was so tired I never really enjoyed it that much. But it was nice winning."

Hull was her only competition, so usually she ran just to win, without regard to great times. That, she decided, was no way to get better.

"I'd much rather run in meets where the winner runs 2:03," Zaleski said. "If I run 2:05, I think I've accomplished a lot more than if I win with a 2:09 or whatever."

Zaleski is such an individualist that it shocked her and her parents last spring when they read that Petkovic thought Zaleski leaned toward the punk rock crowd.

"Give me a break," said Zaleski. "I think that's so funny because it's so ridiculous."

Said her mother:"Kerri's about as far from being a punk rocker or a crazy type of kid as you can get. She's not a kid who hangs out."

Her mother say she's just a normal, attractive teen-ager, so attractive she has the boys lined up. "We have to put a chain around her," Carole said.

But Zaleski doesn't really need the chains.

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