I’m one of those people who can’t quite get enough of the Olympics. I won’t confess to being a rhythmic gymnastics addict, but I love watching some of the lesser-known sports and seeing the same levels of skill and passion we often see elsewhere. Watching a bunch of NBA stars jumping around like high school kids after winning gold was pretty cool. And while I could fill a column with a critique of NBC’s prime time coverage, having five other channels to surf through for live coverage wasn’t a bad consolation prize.
Really need to work on those online offerings, though. That maze of links was better suited for lab rats.)
Of course there are always the stories of the athletes themselves: from the tragically personal, as in cyclist Adrien Niyonshuti, a survivor of the Rwanda massacres of the 90s, or the painfully heroic, as in the United States’ Mateo Mitchell running final 200 meters of his opening leg of the 4×400 relay on a broken fibula so his teammates could continue to compete in the finals the next day.
But for every nationally celebrated achievement, there are dozens of Olympians that are otherwise champions, who embody the spirit of the Games, but for whatever reason never make it to the podium.
My favorite Olympian is one of those.
How Doris Brown Heritage never won an Olympic track and field medal is one of those head-scratchers that compels you to find out what happened.
She began running when women were not allowed to run. She was kicked off of tracks, thrown into lakes by unhappy male counterparts, and told that what she was doing was unhealthy and unnatural. By the time Congress passed Title IX in 1972 she’d already been breaking records and winning championships for 12 years. She won a total of 10 national and world cross country championships (including five straight world cross titles) in her prime and held records from 330 yards to two miles. She was also the first woman to run a sub-five minute indoor mile.
Remarkably she achieved a bizarre awards sweep that wouldn’t happen today: she was named Seattle’s 1971 “Man of the Year in Sports” — yes, really — and Washington’s “Woman of the Year” in 1976.
Her Olympic experiences weren’t nearly as fulfilling.
A broken foot kept her off the 1964 Olympic team. In 1968, in Mexico City, she placed fifth in the 800 after getting jostled in the pack (when you are setting national records, having other competitors around you is rare). At the time the 800 was the longest distance women were allowed to run in the Olympics but the 1500 was introduced before the Munich Olympics of 1972.
She excelled in the longer distance runs, and that seemed to set her up for a run at a medal. But all of her preparation went for naught she stepped on a carelessly placed section of track curbing on the Olympic warmup track, tearing the peroneal tendon in her ankle.
At first glance, it’s not necessarily the stuff that personal favorites are made of.
I first met Doris in the mid-80s, when she was coaching my decathlete roommate Jack Hoyt at Seattle Pacific University (Jack was actually at these Olympics as a coach himself, for heptathlete Sharon Day). I didn’t know her well, so I was a little surprised when on a visit to the school about 10 years ago she remembered me.
Fast forward to 2010. Kim and I were still living in Michigan, though our son A.J. was a freshman distance runner at SPU. That April was, to say the least, a frustrating time: my last, best attempt to save my business in Michigan’s flailing economy had just gone up in smoke, and Kim had just gotten her second layoff notice in 21 months. Two years of trying circumstances had us holed up in my in-laws’ condo, and I had to borrow money to fly to Seattle so I could see A.J. race just once that spring.
I was pretty content to sit in the stands at CWU that Saturday in April and watch my kid race, meet some of his teammates and otherwise anonymously wallow in self pity.
Doris, who had been coaching at SPU nearly four decades but was by then (mostly) retired, spotted me from across the bleachers. We chatted for a few minutes about Jack’s coaching career, but then Doris ventured off of “safe” ground and mentioned that she’d heard things had been interesting for our family, wanted to know how I was.
So, honestly, how do you lie to a legend? One that accomplished so much, but had to battle through so many obstacles — societal, physical, just plain bad luck? How do you say, “Oh, I’m fine!” to someone who had turned her own pain into so much gain for so many others?
I didn’t bother to try. I found out a lot more about Doris that day, that her reputation of caring more for the lives of her athletes than their on-track accomplishments was well-deserved, that her Christian faith was indeed even more integral to her than her running, and that she was as adept a life coach for an hour in the bleachers with a parent as she was a coach of multiple cross country and track champions.
It was coaching and encouragement at its finest, and it was a life raft during some pretty stormy days.
Just proof that it’s not the medals that make the Olympian. Michael Phelps, Bruce Jenner, Mary Lou Retton, Michael Jordan … names that will always be foremost in the pantheon of Olympic heroes for other people.
But my favorite will always be Doris Heritage.