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KURT STREETER

Kara Goucher sets her sights high in the marathon

After finishing third at New York and Boston, she'll try to win a medal at the world championships on Sunday.

August 22, 2009|KURT STREETER

You've probably never heard of Kara Goucher.

You probably don't know she has been one of America's best athletes for some time now.

Probably, if you're the average sports fan, you're not aware of her skill and charisma. Or about her father and the emotional, tragic tie that binds them. Or even about the world championships, and the medal in the marathon she'll try to win in Berlin on Sunday.

Goucher is a track star, which accounts for her lack of recognition in this little corner of the globe. The vast majority of Americans pay attention to track only during Olympic summers.

Come London and the 2012 Games, however, I'm guessing you're going to be hearing quite a bit about the diminutive Goucher. I'm betting she's going to be her sport's next "it girl." You'll know her then.

For the uninitiated, some background: As a middle-distance and cross-country runner, Goucher won three individual NCAA titles at Colorado, graduating in 2001. Expected to be an Olympian in 2004, she instead flamed out. There was too much pressure, too many injuries, too many hard defeats. For several years, it appeared her talent would never blossom.

Searching for answers, on a lark she sent an e-mail introduction to Alberto Salazar, an all-time great based in Portland, Ore., where he coaches a track team for Nike. Soon, under Salazar's wing, success came: fast times, personal bests, and surprise medals in big events.

Goucher went to Beijing last year having won the 5,000 meters and taken second in the 10,000 at the Olympic trials. Everything was set. With her athleticism, open personality and looks -- think Natalie Portman in running flats -- she was poised to be a break-out star. Madison Avenue, here comes Ms. Goucher. Cha-ching!

But Beijing turned into Waterloo.

As she told me a few weeks ago, after a training session in Portland: "I got my doors blown off. Jeez, I almost got lapped."

Salazar, though, didn't seem to mind. He had a plan. He'd long thought, because she struggled with her finishing kick, she was best suited not for the middle distances but for the longest, hardest of tests: the ultimate Olympic event; the first Olympic event; the marathon.

"It's OK," he told her. "You're going to have a new identity now. From now on, you're a marathoner."

Gulp.

She balked, and worried. She knew everything about the marathon was different. The distance, of course. The training. The pain and isolation. "Just being alone in your head that long," said Goucher, refreshingly forthright about her battle against anxiety and self-doubt. "I was thinking, 'I'm not sure if I can do this.' "

Last November's New York Marathon was her first. It was also the most symbolically significant race of her life. Goucher was born in New York. But when she was nearly 4, her father was killed by a drunk driver in a terrible Manhattan wreck.

"What happened to my dad, it changed everything for me," she said. After the accident, Goucher, her mother and her sisters moved to Minnesota. She had a happy childhood there, but losing a father as she did was a burden almost impossible to lift.

New York in November helped. During the race, she ran within blocks of where her father died. She felt a connection she'd never known: "My running and my dad had always been separate. New York was the first time that it was totally interwoven. At around the 13-mile mark, I just started thinking about him and I couldn't stop. It might sound strange, but I felt that he was there."

She needed him. The field was full of the very best in the world. As a first-timer, Goucher was seized by nearly unbearable physical pain: leg cramps, stomach cramps, nausea and exhaustion. At one point, it seemed she couldn't take another step. But she persevered . . . and she thrived. She finished third among women, less than two minutes behind the winner, in the fastest marathon debut ever for a U.S. woman: 2 hours 25 minutes 53 seconds. She was the first American woman to make the podium since 1994.

"My father, I could feel him pushing me all day," she said. "And I can still feel that push."

Something is behind her, that's for sure. In April, at the 113th Boston Marathon, Goucher also finished a strong and surprising third. It was the best showing by an American woman in Boston since 1993. She'd even led late in the race.

"I'm not sure if I can do this," has been kicked to the curb. Now it's "26.2 miles? Yes, I can." This month, ramping up for Sunday in Berlin, she ran a half-marathon in Chicago, beating everyone, including the men.

"I love the marathon," she gushed in an e-mail sent from Germany the other day. She told me how ready she feels, how she plans to run aggressively, and how sad she is that a few of her rivals have been felled by injury. She wants to beat the best.

This will probably be her last marathon for a while. She's 31. She and husband Adam, who also is a world-class runner, hope to have a child soon. But her sights are set on running as a mother. On London and 2012. Even in 2016.

"I want to be the one that brings home the New York marathon, brings home Boston," she told me in Portland. "The one who goes to the worlds and the Olympics and wins the marathon for America. They might not know me now, but the general public, I'm hoping they know me then."

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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