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Rough Run

Diane Pucin 25 Days to Salt Lake City

Illness Robbed Debbie Heald of Chance at Olympic Glory

January 14, 2002|Diane Pucin

Mason, a runner, started a track team at the grade school. Debbie wasn't fast but she was persistent. "All of a sudden," Mason says, "I was noticing that Debbie's name was at the top of best times list for all the longer races."

Heald slowly became Mason's star runner and almost an adopted daughter. She missed the 1976 Olympics when stress fractures kept her out of the U.S. trials but there was no reason to think that, in 1980, Heald wouldn't be a prime 1,500 candidate.

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.

When Heald graduated from high school, she went to Fullerton on a need-based scholarship and Mason, who had become coach at Bellflower High, moved to Ukiah, wanting a less hectic life for his family. His track club, the La Mirada Meteors, was disbanded but Debbie had begun training at the Los Angeles Track Club under Coach Lazlo Tabori.

For several years Mason and Heald lost touch. Mason would hear of Heald, how she had moved to Berkeley to run for a Nike team and train at California.

"In June of 1980," Mason says, "I got a phone call from one of my former runners telling me that Debbie had attempted suicide and was confined to the psychiatric ward at Cedars-Sinai, diagnosed with schizophrenia. I was stunned. As soon as I could, about a week later, I drove to Los Angeles. What I saw, I couldn't believe."

What he saw wasn't his strong, long-legged, bubbly young star. What Mason saw was a woman with a vacant stare who was curled up in a ball. What he didn't know, Mason would soon find out.

"When I got to Berkeley," Heald says, "things started to happen and I didn't even know it. I was acting weird but I didn't know that. I guess I was hearing voices but I didn't know it. My roommates did. I would disappear for a couple of days and I didn't know it and didn't remember where I was."

Heald tried to keep running, to run away from whatever it was that was happening. But she couldn't and finally, in 1980 when she was 24 and should have been in her prime, a roommate called Heald's family. Heald's mother and two brothers drove to Berkeley and took Heald to Cedars-Sinai. She didn't leave the hospital for two years and then only because her insurance, which had come through her association with Nike, ran out.

For the next 16 years, Heald's life was a series of hospitalizations followed by release followed by a suicide attempt or days of disappearance or wandering followed by readmittance to the hospital. She held odd jobs--as a delivery person, as an office worker, whatever she could find.

"I'd find an apartment and start my life and then it would happen again," Heald says. "I could always tell somewhere inside. I'd know things were going bad again."

Whenever she could, Heald would run. Between hospital stays, Heald would try to join a track club.

"I would run but I couldn't follow the sport," Heald says. "It hurt too much. I'd see the people I used to run against and beat, Ruth Wysocki and Francie Larrieu, and I couldn't stand it."

All this time, Mason stayed in Heald's corner. He would visit a couple of times a month. He would take her from the hospital for lunch or a movie. He would help her find jobs or an apartment.

In 1996, Heald was put on a medication that has kept her disease at arm's length. Tom Flood, a counselor at the Norwalk-La Mirada adult school, and a former runner and coach who knew Mason and Heald, stepped in. He got Heald the job at the school. "I tell you," Flood says, "Debbie runs this office."

And since 1996, Heald has not been in the hospital. But the medication caused Heald to gain weight. "I couldn't stand that," she says. Thus started her middle-of-the-night runs. The medication makes it impossible for her to drive, so Heald takes the bus to work.

Every summer she visits Mason and his family in Ukiah for a week or two. Her mother and stepfather live in Banning. Her brother Mike lives in West Hollywood. Her brother Dana lives in Yorba Linda with her niece and nephew.

When Mason saw an ad in a magazine with an application to carry the torch, he thought of Debbie. Debbie said Mason could fill out the application. "But I never thought I'd be accepted," Heald says. "I was at Roy's place this summer when I got the letter I was picked."

Mason, 70, says he expects to cry Tuesday. Flood is taking the afternoon off from work and driving to the Coliseum with four other fans of Heald's.

"I used to be sad about what happened to me and how I never got to run in the Olympics," Heald says. "But I have gotten over that. I have my life and on Tuesday I think I'll be the happiest person you can imagine."

There certainly will be many grand Olympic moments to come this winter. No Olympic performance will be as meaningful as one 46-year-old woman running briefly but with hope, holding high a torch and holding dear the memories of a world record.

The record is only a memory. But the running, that she'll have always.

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Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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Torch to Pass Through Southland

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Passing the Torch

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