AMES, Iowa — Long before she won the 400-meter hurdles in the 1984 Olympics, the first time women had run that event in the Games, Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco was breaking barriers.
That victory, though, was her biggest breakthrough. Her gold medal became a symbol of victory for African women, for Arab women, for Muslims, for the Third World.
To the watching world, El Moutawakel's tears were tears of joy and pride. In fact, though, she was more amazed than anything else. She was amazed, because for her to even have made it to an Olympic final was almost beyond her hopes. To have won? It was simply amazing.
"I used to run with my dad," El Moutawakel said, sitting behind the desk in Coach Ron Renko's track office at Iowa State University. "He used to take us to the beach and draw a line like this and say, 'When I do my hand like this, you run to me and stop.' I used to beat my cousins and my brother. It was no big deal. My dad used to give me candy for winning."
Mohamed El Moutawakel recognized his daughter's aptitude, but was not sure how to direct it. Theirs was a society requiring that women's bodies be fully covered. Most Muslim fathers would have been shamed if their daughters had competed against boys. But Mohamed El Moutawakel was not most fathers.
"My dad lived with some French people and he kept some of it," El Moutawakel said. "He grew up, I would say.
"He always taught us the way these people lived and the way they taught their children. My dad was very liberal by Moroccan standards. When I traveled to Europe for track, I saw other societies and how people lived. When I came home, I would tell my father and my brothers how these people lived. We were a relaxed family, different from other Arab families."
Nawal, 23, was discovered by the Moroccan track and field federation when she was 15 and outrunning all the boys in Casablanca. She began to travel with the national team when she was 17. She was immediately successful, but she was looking to get out. El Moutawakel and her father agreed that with the level of competition available to her in Africa, she wasn't progressing. The more Nawal thought about her situation, the more convinced she became that she should look for a school in the United States.
At the World Championships in Helsinki in August of 1983, Nawal struck up a conversation with fellow African, Sunday Uti of Nigeria. Uti had a scholarship at Iowa State. Doing some long-distance recruiting, Uti left with El Moutawakel's address and promised she would hear from the women's track coach.
El Moutawakel shrugged.
"One day I got a big envelope from the States," she said. "I showed my dad. They took it seriously. (Iowa State coaches) sent me forms to fill out. But we weren't really sure.
"I put it away. I didn't really think about it. It was a big decision. Then all of a sudden one day I started to fill out the forms. I took them to my father, 'Here, I want you to sign this.' He said, 'You are going for real. Now we go 100%.' "
That meant eight hours a day of English language instruction. "It was going to be an adventure. He told me I would have to learn their language and their way of life.
"It is very unusual that a father lets go of his daughter in our society. He knew I had a skill and with a little bit of coaching I could improve it. My dad said, 'Probably if you go to the United States and train, you can finish your school. Why not?'
"I was the first one in our family to leave Morocco, and a girl. My brothers, they had never been out of Morocco."
Even so, she almost didn't make it out. Her father was torn by his desire for his 20-year-old daughter to succeed and uncertainty over sending her to a foreign land with a very different society.
"My dad was crying when I left," she said. "I had never seen him cry. I thought, 'My dad is crying because I'm leaving?'
"He said he was going to bring me back. On our way to the airport, he said 'No!' and then he went back. He made the turn and he came back home. He said, 'I got to get something.' There was nothing. He was still thinking he didn't want me to go anymore.
"On the plane, I was scared. I was crying the whole way. I wished the plane would turn and take me back to Morocco."
El Moutawakel arrived at the airport in Des Moines on a severe January afternoon. Neither Renko nor Pat Moynihan, his assistant, was able to meet her at the airport. Instead, they dispatched a team member, who carried a sign with Nawal's name and picture.
"This girl had my picture and my name on a paper," El Moutawakel said. "I came up to her. 'That's me,' I said. I thought she was also named Nawal. I didn't know what my picture was doing there.
"She drove me to Ames (about 25 miles north of Des Moines). I didn't know what was happening. I said, 'Where are we going? Why are we driving so far? Where is Iowa State University? Are you Pat? Is Pat a man or a woman?"