IRVINE — Pam Kurtela saw the signs everywhere.
There's the four-inch scar from surgery on her right ankle as an eighth-grader.
There's the scar tissue in her right leg from the quadriceps muscle tear in 1990.
And there's the left hamstring pull she suffered in 1991.
Quit, they told her. Quit now.
Nobody would have blamed her for giving up in 1990, her senior year with the Los Alamitos track team. Nobody would have criticized her for quitting UC Irvine's team any time during the last three years.
All you had to do was watch the pain on her face when she ran.
"I was so frustrated," she said of her injuries. "There were days when I would go home and cry because there was nothing I could do."
Frustrated because Kurtela, a sprinter, hates losing.
She hated it when she lost to a boy in a 50-yard race in fifth grade. She beat eight other kids, but she remembers the one she lost to.
She hated losing at pool to her father as a kid. She hated losing at board games. She hated losing races against her sisters. Then Kurtela learned a serious lesson--that you can't win a race against pain, and that you can't run if your legs won't let you.
But quit? Out of the question.
"I considered it many times," she admitted. "I would work all fall and come out in the spring and be injured. I loved running, and I had never been a quitter at anything before, so why should I start now?"
Especially when she was just getting started. With some changes in training and running technique, Kurtela, a junior, has put some serious distance between herself and her injury-riddled past.
She enters the Big West track and field championships Friday injury-free for the first time in four years.
Kurtela has the conference's top 200-meter time (24.62 seconds), is third in the 100 (12.04) and fourth in the 400 (56.42). She also plans to run legs on the Anteaters' 400 and 1,600 relays.
It has taken a lot of time, patience, pain and physical therapy to put Kurtela back on track. Nobody knows this better than Irvine Coach Vince O'Boyle.
O'Boyle worked mainly with Irvine's distance runners during Kurtela's first two seasons at Irvine. He watched from a distance as Kurtela struggled with hamstring pulls during her freshman year.
He knew she had potential. That's why he recruited her. She just couldn't shake the injuries.
"I could see some things with her that, obviously, a lot of coaches had missed," O'Boyle said. "She has great lift, is lively off her feet when she runs. And (she) has the spirit of competition. She doesn't like to lose. You can't build that. You can't coach it.
"The sprinting technique you can do something with. But the internal things, the spirit of competition, you can't control."
Kurtela is the youngest of three sisters who ran at Los Alamitos but is the first to compete at the collegiate level.
Debbie, who's six years older than Pam, was a distance runner. Janie, who's two years older than Pam, was a middle-distance runner.
"I always wanted to do what they did and be better at it," Pam said. "And I wanted to be the sprinter."
Kurtela's hopes of having any kind of college career were nearly cut short because of injuries.
Schools such as Arizona, Washington, Irvine, Boise State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo recruited her at the start of her senior year. But by midseason, the schools lost interest. You're too injury-prone, they told her.
The concern started early in the season, when Kurtela competed on an injured ankle. She overcompensated for the injury, aggravating the quadriceps muscle in her right leg.
"I had a knot high in my quadriceps and I kept running on it and aggravating it until finally I couldn't do any more," she said. "I kept trying to run on it, though. And that probably wasn't a good idea."
The injury made it difficult for Kurtela to run a tight turn on the track. She couldn't push hard off her right leg, so she would drift out to the right.
Still, she finished the season, running the 200 and the mile relay at the Southern Section meet. By season's end, the list of colleges had dwindled to a few.
"My injury was severe and they (doctors and coaches) didn't figure I could come back from it," she said. "It was beginning to calcify and everything.
"After that happened, the only schools interested were Irvine, Boise State, Cal State Fullerton and a couple other state schools."
She chose Irvine because she liked the program and could stay close to home. She spent nearly three months in physical therapy at Long Beach Sports Medicine and was pronounced fit for her freshman year.
"Then it was the hamstring," she said.
Kurtela pulled her left hamstring and competed in only three meets. O'Boyle plans to ask the NCAA to grant her a redshirt year for that season, thus giving her two more years of eligibility.
She pulled the hamstring again her sophomore year, which forced her to sit out three more meets.
She hasn't missed one since.