Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Gabriele?s final lap: ?You try to give it all you have?

Recalling an indelible Olympic moment from 1984

Express Staff Writer

Gabriele Andersen running along Broadford Road in the Lions Club Fun Run in Sept. 1989, when she was one of the top women?s Masters run-ners in the country. Express file photo

The word ?courageous? has been used many times to describe Gabriele Andersen?s final lap around the hot and steamy Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum track in the 1984 Olympic women?s marathon.

Struggling mightily with the ef-fects of dehydration stroke and heat exhaustion after 26 miles of running in 76-degree heat and high humidity, Sun Valley resident Andersen weaved and staggered through 400 meters of sheer agony.

She dragged her lame left leg. The loss of bodily fluids cut off her blood supply causing numbness in her limbs. Her face slack, her body twisted, she relentlessly lurched around the track?moving away from officials who tried to help her.

She wanted to finish unaided. And she did.

Andersen, then 39 and running for her native Switzerland under her maiden name Gabriele Andersen-Schiess, made it to the finish line and collapsed into somebody?s arms. Her body was on fire. But her enormous task was done.

It was an unforgettable Olympic moment in the first-ever Olympic women?s marathon, and it is certain to be recalled Sunday, Aug. 22 when the 2004 Olympic marathon is staged in Athens, Greece.

Why is Andersen?s experience remembered a generation later? Be-cause seldom are the struggles of world-class athletes portrayed in the raw on such a stage. Nearly 77,000 spectators watched Andersen?s pur-suit of the blessed finish?millions more on television.

Courageous? Many thought so. Dr. Richard Greenspun, the chief track and field medical officer for the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee, said afterwards, ?As she came up the tunnel, my thoughts were, ?This is one of the most courageous things I?ve ever seen.??

New York Post columnist Dick Young wrote, ?They have given Joan Benoit her gold medal, and Grete Waitz her silver, and Rosa Mota her bronze. For you, Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, they should erect a statue alongside the Olympic torch atop the Los Angeles Coliseum, to immortal-ize as courageous an athletic per-formance as the old Stadium has ever seen.?

Another reason the 1984 Olympic marathon is remembered?Andersen was a woman, an accomplished ath-lete devoted to many sports. Her very-public struggle was a microcosm of the struggles women had made to achieve recognition in the era of Title 9.

This Sunday, Andersen, now 59, will watch the Olympic marathon at her Elkhorn home. Los Angeles in 1984 was her one and only Olympic experience. She remembers it vividly. It has affected her life. But she doesn?t make a big deal about the ?courageous,? part.

She said Monday, ?To me, it wasn?t really courageous. It was more about determination, and having a strong mind to overcome and not give up and be able to make it through the pain. Being in the Olympics, you just try to give it all you have.?

Andersen, who grew up on alpine skis in Switzerland and competed for the Swiss national running team, came to the U.S. in 1973, married Dick Andersen in 1975 and moved with him to Sun Valley in 1977.

She came relatively late to mara-thon running, doing her first 26-mile, 385-yard endurance test in West Germany in 1973 at the age of 28. That she was able to compete in the first women?s marathon 11 years later, at 39, still amazes her.

Andersen said, ?Looking back, the main satisfaction that I had about the Olympics was that so late in my life I was able to qualify and be part of it. I never, ever really thought I?d be in it. I knew I wouldn?t win a medal, al-though I was hoping to be in the top 15 or 20.?

For the record, Andersen (2.48:42) placed 37th of 44 finishers (50 start-ers from 28 countries) in the inaugu-ral Olympic women?s marathon won by Joan Benoit of Maine (2.24:52) ahead of Norway?s Grete Waitz (2.26:18) and Portugal?s Rosa Mota (2.26:57).

Her times had been better.

In 1983, the year before the Olympics, Andersen had a excellent marathon season?winning $12,000 for her Twin Cities marathon victory in 2.36:22 and qualifying for the Olympics with a personal-record 2.33:25 at Sacramento in December. She applied by mail for the Swiss team and was approved.

By Los Angeles, she had run more than 20 marathons. In the weeks be-fore the Aug. 5, 1984 run, however, Andersen was leery about the heat. Before the race, she said, ?The main problem is that it?s going to be hot in Los Angeles, and I?ve never run in those conditions.?

In retrospect, Andersen said she probably should have come to Los Angeles earlier and acclimated to the conditions. ?I probably made some mistakes in training and preparation, but I never really had a coach. The things I learned I learned by myself,? she said.

She missed seeing the final water station at the 24-mile mark, but she was fully aware that she needed to take one, full lap of the Coliseum track after entering the arena through the tunnel. Trouble was, her body didn?t cooperate by that time.

Andersen said, ?I knew what I wanted to do, but my muscles wouldn?t respond anymore. It?s hard to accept when your mind wants you to do something, but your body says no. The worst part was when I got into the Coliseum. It was a lot hotter.

?In another marathon I might have pulled out. But it was an historic marathon and it meant a lot to me to be in it, and it?s really hard when you see the finish line so close just to give up.?

Andersen was treated for two hours at the Coliseum, where she was sprayed with a hose, had cold towels placed on her body and was fed intra-venously. For another two hours, doctors stayed with her at Olympic Village. But she was never in any real danger.

Her life changed for a few weeks and months with all the media atten-tion. ?But it didn?t profoundly change anything in my life,? Andersen said. ?It took me a couple of weeks to get over it psychologically and I didn?t run any big races for a while.?

She didn?t shy away, though. Her first marathon after the Olympics, just a few months later, was the 1984 New York City Marathon. Remarkably, the Big Apple conditions were worse than in L.A.?74 degrees and 96% humidity?but Gabriele ran a con-trolled 2.42:24 and placed 11th among women.

What is not generally known among Olympic watchers is that An-dersen, motivated by her own in-credible determination rather than Olympic notoriety, went on to be-come one of America?s top elite Masters runners in the 40-44 and 45-49 age classes during the late 1980s. She set many American records at distances ranging from 5 kilometers to 30k.

All the while, she continued her excellence in cross-country skiing. Andersen is a three-time winner of the Boulder Mountain Ski Tour. She was the fastest citizen woman in the 1979 and 1980 American Birkebe-iner, earning Gabriele a trip to the prestigious Norwegian Birkebeiner.

Today, she has cut back on her running to a jog a week because of left knee surgery three years ago. Gabriele has turned her attention to mountain biking and cross-country skiing. Once in a while, she does a triathlon. She still swims, and she likes hiking.

Andersen works as a florist for the Sun Valley resort, is approaching 30 years of marriage with her husband Dick, and thoroughly appreciates living in an area with so many rec-reational opportunities. ?I like to have fun and enjoy it,? she said about her many athletic pursuits.

Her attitude is about the same as it was in 1980, at age 35, when in the aftermath of her impressionable trip to the Norwegian Birkebeiner she said, ?I just want to keep being in shape. If you want to be healthy at an older age, daily exercise is the best way.?

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