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Keeping Up With the Sprinting Surgeon

July 08, 1985|MARSHALL BERGES | Times Staff Writer

"Everybody needs an escape hatch from tension," Robert Watanabe says. "I find my escape in the 100-yard dash."

He sprints like a world-class runner at speeds of nearly 10 yards a second. His full-time occupation, however, is not athlete, nor is he at an age where world-class athletes are usually found. Watanabe, 59, is an orthopedic surgeon on the staff of St. John's Hospital, Santa Monica.

Green smock flying, he dashes weekdays on a special track designed for the hospital's cardiac patients. At other times he runs along San Vicente Boulevard and in regular weekend workouts at the UCLA track. He continues to match his college-era speeds of 36 years ago.

Believer in Fitness

Wiry and compact (5 feet 5 inches, 135 pounds), Watanabe keeps in training shape not only for its escape value and not only because he is a fervent believer in physical fitness; he enjoys competitive sports. Two years ago he won five gold medals in the Senior Olympics in Los Angeles. He sprinted again in Rome during last month's VI World Veterans Games, a series of Olympian-caliber events for older athletes (including such former Olympic gold medalists as Parry O'Brien). Watanabe ran the 100-meter dash in 12.76 seconds, winning a bronze medal, and the 200-meter dash in 26.63 seconds.

"I don't recommend sprinting for everyone," said Watanabe, who devotes the major part of his practice to sports medicine and treats many seniors. "Slow, rhythmic running is a safer exercise for most people. A miler almost never pulls a muscle, while a sprinter in a 100-yard dash is required to run at maximum speed, and that has risks for anyone past 40."

Bob Watanabe has been running at a fast clip most of his life. His quiet manner reflects the extraordinary control and discipline of one who has endured, coped with and conquered personal anguish.

The only son and eldest of five children in a Japanese-American family, he began sprinting during boyhood in San Luis Obispo. The happy life style of the prosperous, hard-working Watanabe family was shattered by Pearl Harbor. Along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans, Bob's parents and sisters were herded into a detention camp in the Arizona desert.

It fell to Bob, then 15, to sell the family's comfortable home, autos and other holdings, including his father's wholesale grocery business and his mother's restaurant. Faced with the threat of total loss, the internees had no chance to negotiate for fair prices; the Watanabes' possessions were sold for less than 10 cents on the dollar.

Bob joined his parents and sisters in the detention camp. With 10,000 occupants on a strip of land one mile square, the camp was surrounded by barbed wire. Its living quarters consisted of Army-type barracks, with each structure divided into four rooms, and each family assigned to a single room. "I burned with bitter feelings," Watanabe recalled in an interview. "At high school classes in the camp we were asked to write a paper on our experiences. I wrote a scathing denunciation of the entire approach to relocation and concentration camps.

"All I could feel was blind anger. I worked off my personal fury by sprinting, running here and there inside the camp. I was able to adapt because I was 15. Today, approaching my 60th birthday, the bitterness has faded from memory. But I also know I couldn't make that kind of adjustment again."

Moved to Detroit

After two years, restrictions were eased; internees were allowed to move away from the West. Watanabe went to Detroit, where he found a job inspecting artillery shells in a munitions factory. He also signed up at Wayne State University and, on the side, he kept running.

He felt a powerful desire to obtain an education, Watanabe said, an ambition traceable to "the discipline of my childhood training. Among the Japanese there is a built-in assumption that children will strive and succeed, stretch and learn. My parents expected me to go to college. Nothing interfered with that, not even the disruption of wartime internment. They made it clear to me that education is essential to success in any field."

After a year at Wayne State, he enlisted in the Army. His fast feet found a place on the Army Olympic track team. Following a two-year hitch, an assist from the GI bill enabled him to enter UCLA, where he studied medicine and ran on the track team.

He followed a curious path to medicine, he said later. Even though others could understand his resentment over being an internee, Watanabe said, "I felt guilty about my lingering bitterness at the way we'd been treated. Then the guilt feelings turned into a real desire to help others. Medicine seemed the answer."

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