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Obituaries

Kim Gallagher, 38; Olympic Medalist Ran Through Pain

November 21, 2002|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Pain was a constant in Kim Gallagher's life -- but so was success as a middle-distance runner.

Gallagher, a two-time Olympic medalist whose third-place finish in the women's 800-meter run at the Seoul Games in 1988 is considered one of the sport's bravest performances, died Monday of a stroke at Roxborough Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia. She was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1995 and had suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and other debilitating ailments during her running career. She was 38.

Because she had trained with Coach Chuck DeBus, who was banned for life by USA Track and Field for giving his athletes steroids and other banned substances, Gallagher feared that observers would assume she had taken steroids and that her cancer might be related to steroid abuse. She steadfastly denied having taken steroids.

"They weren't for kids," Gallagher told The Times in 1995. "I didn't want to look like all those pumped-up, big-looking ... talking-weird [women]. I liked my looks too much."

Slender and willowy, Gallagher was a prodigy at Upper Dublin (Pa.) High School, where she set national high school records in the 800 (2:00.07) and 1,500 (4:16.6) that stand 20 years later. At 15, she set a Penn Relays record for the girls' high school mile with a time of 4:49.2, which also stands as the event record.

"She was so good so young," Villanova women's cross-country Coach Gina Procaccio, a contemporary of Gallagher's, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "You could tell even back then how good she was."

After a year at the University of Arizona, she moved to Southern California to train in Santa Monica with the Los Angeles Track Club and DeBus. She complained of stomach problems in 1983 and underwent surgery for polycystic ovaries several months before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, yet she finished second behind Doina Melinte of Romania in the 800 with a time of 1:58.63.

She left no doubt about her courage or skill at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. By then having also battled anemia and an infection of the fallopian tubes, she finished third in the 800 with a personal-best time of 1:56.91, which puts her third on the U.S. all-time list for the event behind Jearl Miles-Clark and Mary Decker Slaney. She also was 11th in the 1,500.

"I felt like I was being stabbed in the stomach," she said after the 800, in which she was pinned by East German runners Sigrun Wodars and Christine Wachtel and had to rally on the final lap to move up from fifth.

Yet, her joy outweighed her pain, making the bronze worth more than the silver medal she had won four years earlier. "I had the two best 800 women in the world in front of me, and I was picked ninth going into this race," said Gallagher, who wept on the medal stand.

Gallagher tried to make the U.S. Olympic team again in 1992 but failed. Her cancer was diagnosed three years later and she was told she had two to three years to live. Her health deteriorated this summer and she suffered a stroke in August.

She is survived by her husband, John Corcoran; her 13-year-old daughter, Jessica Smith; her mother, Barbara, and her father, John.

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