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Diane Pucin 25 Days to Salt Lake City

Rough Run

Illness Robbed Debbie Heald of Chance at Olympic Glory

January 14, 2002|Diane Pucin

Debbie Heald will carry the Olympic torch Tuesday. Once, she expected to carry an Olympic medal.

Once, Debbie Heald set the world record. She was 16, a junior at Neff High in La Mirada in her first international meet and she beat the women from the Soviet Union, bigger, stronger, older, silent women who scared her. Until she ran past them.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 12 words Type of Material: Correction
Track coach--Track Coach Laszlo Tabori's name was misspelled in a Sports story Monday.

Now, Heald runs past the neighborhood dogs who shatter the night silence with their noisy greeting. She knows the police who patrol the streets of Norwalk in the middle of the night. They will flash their lights at Heald or pull over to say hello when Heald runs and walks the streets from 2 a.m. until 3 or 4, depending on how her sore hip feels. On weekends, Heald runs at 5:30. Her goal is to stay away from trouble, to let the drunks from the bars get home.

Her goal once was to conquer the world with her track shoes and her talent. Now, the men on the backs of the garbage trucks wave. Street cleaners call out her name. Heald will point to a house and say that the men who live there will sometimes party late and throw their empty beer bottles at her as she moves by.

"People," Heald says. "I just don't understand them."

Heald is 46. When Heald runs, she has a long, sure stride. Her hips are balanced, her feet touch the ground lightly.

In the quiet nights, as she runs or walks for hours and miles, 12 to 15 each evening, Heald is alone with her thoughts and sometimes she can't help but think about how her life was supposed to be.

Heald lives in a small apartment off Firestone Boulevard, a busy street filled with car dealerships, fast food restaurants and, sometimes, trouble. She has a roommate and a position that's part-time job and part-time volunteer at the Norwalk-La Mirada adult education department.

Her co-workers love Heald, who has a degree in education from Cal State Fullerton and once had plans to be a teacher and coach like her mentor, her hero, her coach, her second father, Roy Mason. She was going to become a teacher after she had run in the Olympics, maybe in a couple of world championships, surely after she had won some gold medals in her race, the race, the 1,500-meter run.

Instead, Heald will carry the Olympic torch when it arrives in Los Angeles on its nationwide tour in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City. Heald will pick up the torch at the Coliseum at 3:15 p.m. She will wear a USA team-issued sweat suit. It came with a T-shirt and baseball cap and, the day the gear arrived, Heald cried. Nothing in her life will mean as much to Heald as the three-quarters of a mile she will run with the torch.

Her family and her friends are taking off work. Mason is driving 12 hours from Ukiah. This will be, truly, an Olympic moment in a way to make us realize what the Olympics are supposed to mean.

*

Does the name Debbie Heald ring a bell? Does it tickle your memory? You've heard that name before, haven't you?

If you are a fan of track and field, you probably have.

On March 17, 1972, Heald, 16, set the world indoor mile record at the Richmond Coliseum in a dual meet against a powerful Soviet Union team. This was in the middle of the Cold War. The Soviet women were dominant. The U.S. team was made up mostly of teenagers. Heald's victory was as stunning as was the fact the U.S. women won.

In a photo in Sports Illustrated, Heald is crossing the finish line with her hands raised, palms forward and a big smile filled with joy and astonishment. Heald won the race in 4 minutes 38.5 seconds. Some 30 years later, it still stands as the high school indoor record.

It was Heald's first international meet. Also in the race were Doris Brown, Heald's 27-year-old hero and then the mile record holder; five-time world cross-country champion Tamara Pangelova, who had set the world indoor record the week before in the European Championships, and Ludmila Braghina, who would win Olympic gold later in the year. All were at least 10 years older than Heald.

Heald ran in shoes held together by tape because she couldn't afford new ones. She called home to Mason, her coach, crying every day because she was homesick and because the U.S. national coaches wanted her to train differently from what Mason had asked. Her previous best time had been 4:47. Her hope had been to run 4:44 or maybe 4:42. Her "outside dream," as she called it, was to hit 4:40.

When Heald got home the next day, the world had noticed. Banners were up in her neighborhood. Shoe companies began mailing gear.

"I ran in a meet in Long Beach the next week," Heald says, "and I thought I was the coolest thing. I was walking around in all my new stuff."

In those days there wasn't much in the way of college scholarships, but a girl with Heald's talent was certainly noticed and nurtured. Mason had become her teacher in fourth grade. Heald's father had recently died and her mother, Ernestine, had asked that Debbie be assigned to a male teacher.

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