Mile News

After the Fall

October 01, 2009

Many remember Zola Budd as the barefoot prodigy who broke world records, became a symbol of South Africa's oppression, and was blamed for Mary Decker's Olympic nightmare, but her story has more heartbreak, more hard-fought redemption and considerably more weirdness than the legend.

By Steve Friedman, Runner's World

Last Autumn, at a pretty clearing nestled 3,333 ft above sea level in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, 194 female collegiate distance runners gathered to run a 5000 meter cross country race.

Many were tall and slim, rangy and loose-limbed in the way of college-aged distance runners. They came from North Carolina State, Clemson, Davidson, Miami and other colleges and universities, and it’s a safe bet that no matter what burdens any of them quietly carried—anxiety about grades, boyfriend troubles, or less specific but no less real woes—none had ever faced the combination of worldwide shame and personal loss that had battered the middle-aged woman in their midst.

She was neither tall nor slim nor rangy. She was 42, brown as a walnut, slightly thick in the middle. When the race started, she jumped in front. The young runners knew this was an open race, that oddballs could run if they wanted. But what was the runner in front thinking? Maybe she wanted to feel the sensation of leading a race. Maybe she would quit after a few hundred yards, then limp back to her grandkids and tell them about the day she led some real runners. Maybe she used to lead races, back in her day.

Some of the coaches looked at each other. She had a nice stride—there was power to it, and precision. She wasn’t just a weekend jogger out for a laugh. The coaches could tell that, even if some of the young runners could not. She kept the lead even after a quarter mile. More coaches watched her, and for at least one of them, and maybe more, who beheld her curly hair, and her speed, and the way she had that little hitch in her style—elbows slightly too high, a little too wide—there was something familiar.

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Tags: zola budd (5) , mary decker slaney (22) , los angeles 1984 (7)

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