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Comeback 4,021 : Marathoner Gayle Olinekova Is Battered, Not Broken

August 22, 1986|LISA GOULIAN | Times Staff Writer

Gayle Olinekova's philosophy remains simple, as simple as putting one foot in front of the other: "When you're sitting on the ground, you can't fall any farther. But you're going to stay there if you don't get up and do something about it."

The 33-year-old marathoner, author and fitness guru has picked herself up more times than she cares to remember.

Seeing Olinekova fly around the track at UCLA's Drake Stadium, it's hard to believe it was a little more than two years ago that she lay in a hospital bed, her head battered, her Olympic dream shattered.

Although she was once the world's third-ranked woman marathoner, inexperience, illness and politics had kept her out of the Games.

But 1984 looked like her year.

Olinekova, a Canadian citizen living in the Caribbean, was to represent St. Lucia in the Olympic marathon in Los Angeles. But four weeks before the Games, she was training near her home in Westlake Village when a driver ran through a stop sign and hit her. She wound up with a severe concussion and was forced to watch from her bed as American Joan Benoit won the gold medal.

"You know when things happen to you and you say, 'Oh, this must be a blessing in disguise,' " she said. "Well, on that one, the disguise was so damned good that I can't figure it out to this day what the blessing was.

"I just couldn't believe it. All of a sudden, one second you're doing fine and the next second your head is going through the windshield. I was depressed. I got angry. I felt sorry for myself."

Olinekova's head didn't actually go through the windshield, but she did suffer a severe concussion that kept her from running for six months. She picked herself up and took up swimming until she was healthy enough to jog a few miles each day. She has worked herself back up to long-distance running and is currently training with half-miler Deann Gutowski in preparation for the Los Angeles Marathon next March. This is a venture Olinekova calls "Comeback No. 4,021."

"There have come some dark moments when I've felt almost that I'm a mistress to this thing called running," Olinekova said. "And it's broken my heart a million times, but I'm so in love with it that I can't let it go."

As a child, she would race the bus to school instead of riding it. At 15, she broke a Toronto girls high school record with a 62-second quarter mile. At 16, she represented Canada in international competition.

Olinekova, who grew up in a poor family, began running, she said, because she wanted to beat the little rich girls. "But I found out they were really easy to beat because they give up so easy," she said. "Then, I suppose I wanted to run to prove something to everybody and to myself. Just that I could do it."

The neighbors had always considered her a strange child. One day, when she was in high school, Olinekova ran through the streets of her Toronto neighborhood in a rainstorm. She was wearing a sweat suit and a shower cap, enough to raise a few blinds as well as a few eyebrows, and enough to embarrass her parents--again. But such attention had long since stopped bothering the free-spirited teen-ager.

"I think the most important thing I learned from my childhood is that I was different," she said. "And the day that I discovered I was different, I think for the first time I really became happy because I realized I could succeed."

Different in that she had legs so muscular she couldn't find boots to fit over her calves, legs that Sports Illustrated would later call "the greatest to ever stride the earth." Different in that she had the courage to leave home at age 17, eventually heading for Europe after a few running disappointments.

She had entered international competition with a bang, and in June, 1969, was named to the Canadian national team. She then contracted mononucleosis, which slowed her down until 1971, when she finished second in the 800 meters at the Pan American Games.

In 1972, she was injured a few weeks before the Canadian Olympic trials. She was sprinting on a Toronto track when she collided with a 10-year-old girl. Olinekova suffered a fractured skull and whiplash.

College was the next venture, but after one semester as a fine arts major at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, the classroom became too confining. She cleaned out her bank account and four days later found herself sitting on a dock in Amsterdam with $50 in her pocket, the same amount she took home with her two years later.

In between, she fasted once for 40 days, slept in phone booths and worked as a barmaid and a grape picker. She hitchhiked across Europe, visiting the Soviet Union, Holland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, studied a few languages, suffered from cholera and grew up fast.

And her love for running blossomed. Between adventures, Olinekova found time to train at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, and in August, 1974, she won the 800 in a prestigious international meet in Zurich.

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