YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL : LOS ANGELES--1991 : Caught Up in the Moment : Festival Director Elizabeth Primrose-Smith Missed an Olympic Opportunity as an Athlete by a Split Second, So She Serves in Another Way


Elizabeth Primrose-Smith might have ended up executive director of the U.S. Olympic Festival regardless, given an inner drive that left competitors in her wake as far back as kindergarten.

It's arguable whether two-tenths of one second in anyone's life--a snap of the fingers--could alter the course of a career, yet Primose-Smith cannot dismiss the possibility.

She was a hot-shot high school swimmer out of Baltimore in 1963, a member of a gold-medal winning 4x100-meter freestyle relay team at the Pan American Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil. At 16, she made the Olympic trials in the 100-meter backstroke and was a favorite to advance to Tokyo and the 1964 Olympic Games.

Twenty-seven years later, Primrose-Smith remembers almost every detail. The trials were held in New York to coincide with the World's Fair.

The venue was terrible, she said. So was the pool. A day before the finals, the elevator broke in her hotel.

"I had to walk down 12 flights of stairs," she said. "I got a cramp in one of my calves. It never came out. It set my timing off just enough. I was first out of the turn, but I hit on the wrong arm, because my timing was just a little off. My turn was slower, and I was next to last coming out of the turn. That was it."

Primose-Smith failed to qualify for the Olympics by two-tenths of a second.

"And that was with a stopwatch, remember," she said, "not one of those electric timers. So someone (the official timekeeper) could have had a very fat (i.e., slow) thumb. Who knows?"

Primrose-Smith, an admitted perfectionist and organizer who spent countless hours in the pool to shave milliseconds from her swim times, would forever attempt to account for that missing fraction of a moment.

"For years I dreamed about it," she said. "I was devastated by it. I would have gone to Tokyo in the fall, so I had done the first months of schoolwork in the summer just in case I made the team. When I didn't make the team, everyone didn't know what to say to me. I disappointed them. God, it was terrible."

Every night, Primrose-Smith relived the nightmare. Even today, the memory is vivid.

"In retrospect, OK, I shouldn't have walked down the stairs," she said. "But the elevator was out.

"And I was so afraid to have a massage from a professional masseur, because I had never had one before, and you don't fool around with an athlete's muscles if you don't know. It was just one of those things. It was why, why, why? But you're 16, and you're trying to evaluate. How much experience do you have?"

Primrose-Smith didn't quit swimming after her defeat, but she admitted her heart wasn't in the sport soon after. There were no collegiate swimming scholarships for women then, so her career essentially was finished. She directed her competitive energies to schoolwork and graduated second in her high school class, behind a future presidential scholar. She received her undergraduate degree at Stanford and later earned a master's in business administration at UCLA.

Still, the Olympic flame within her both flickered and taunted.

From her 20th floor downtown office, Primrose-Smith, 43, sits atop the Festival and conducts, like a maestro, the events of her own L.A. Story, one she hopes won't be marred by the panorama of smog in her present backdrop, or the unjust but inevitable comparisons to the near-flawless spectacle of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

The U.S Olympic Festival is a three-legged sack race in comparison, except that the games will be played in the same city, at many of the same venues, with the same, inspiring, percussion-and-brass John Williams' Olympic theme song pervading throughout.

But the Festival is Primose-Smith's baby, for which she is responsible for decision-making as diverse as cultivating corporate sponsorship to the last-minute scramble for new table tennis shirts. (The originals were white, which would make for unsuitable camouflage for the white ping-pong balls.)

"Sitting on top of it all is a challenge," she said. "It's exhilarating and sometimes very frustrating

trying to get certain entities to work together. It can be extremely exhausting."

It was a long road back to the top, the 20th floor. The Olympic spirit never left her, even after the disappointment of 1964. She did well for herself out of college, working for the Stanford Research Institute, the 1981 World Games and the First Interstate Bank Athletic Foundation.

When Peter Ueberroth called in 1981 with an offer

to make her associate vice president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, Primrose-Smith saw an opportunity to, at least in part, fill the void of 1964.

"It didn't take long for me to disrupt my life and come down," she said. "I wanted to be a part of it, not only because I wasn't there before as an athlete, but also

because I remember how inspiring it was for me as an athlete, how it really was an important thing."

Los Angeles Times Articles