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“I was awesome”

If you purchased Runner’s World at the checkout last week, as non-runners so often do while buying soft sheep’s milk cheeses during the holiday season, you may have discovered a sad and lovely article titled “Meteor” (sadly unavailable online, it’s “The Body Issue,” currently on newsstands next to cheeses) about Debbie Heald, the young Californian track star whose life took many strange turns (mental illness, poverty abuse, a good teacher who cared and tried to make a difference, years of institutionalization). There’s an old Sports Illustrated piece about her famous meet, and an LA Times piece about her illness, but let’s go with Runner’s World and 4:40 on the video:

Nine times out of ten, she loses the race. That St. Patrick’s Day, though, something happened. She wasn’t a strong finisher, but something happened. Something that even today, 40 years later, is awesome and ineffably beautiful to see, even on grainy, jumpy videotape with a soundtrack of a thudding funeral march. The girl with no kick kicks harder than she had ever kicked before, kicks away from Doris Brown, kicks past the great Russian Pangelova, who looks like she is standing still. She kicks through the tape in a world-record time of 4:38.5, eight and a half seconds faster than she had ever run the distance before, a new high school girl’s indoor mile mark, a record that has never been broken, the oldest girl’s high school track record in the United States.

It’s a record that prompts Roy to pick up his telephone every St. Patrick’s Day. When Debbie answers, her coach says, “You’ve still got it.”


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