In 1984, the Olympic games were held in the glorious summer heat of Los Angeles. Records were being broken, Carl Lewis was grabbing four gold medals on his path to becoming arguably, the greatest ever Track and Field athlete and British athlete, Daley Thompson, would go on to set a new Decathlon record.
Away from the podiums, medals and headlines, a lonely figure in the inaugural women’s marathon would go on to provide dramatic images that would flash across the screens of the world for a very long time. Her name was Gabrielle Anderson-Scheisse and she would soon be making history.
The Idaho based ski instructor, although clearly living in America, was born in Switzerland and so represented her country. As no slouch or stranger to long distance running, as her achievements would prove. She won both the California International Marathon and the Two Cities Marathon in Minneapolis the previous year and was also a record holder of the Swiss 10,000 meters and the marathon, too.
The race started without incident in Santa Monica on what was a muggy August morning. Keeping good pace throughout the race, towards the end she started to be affected by the heat. Turning in from the streets into the tunnel that would lead to the stadium briefly afforded Gabrielle – “Gabi” – a little respite, but with the stadium containing the heat and not allowing for wind and ventilation, the temperature increased dramatically inside.
Gabrielle’s body was overheating badly and having missed the last aid station, she was literally running on empty. The last 400 meters – one lap of a track circuit – took her almost six minutes.
Her body was screaming out in pain. Her left arm flailing at her side and her right leg unbending at the knee, she was veering from lane to lane as she stuttered and staggered to keep upright. Now closer to stumbling to that of running or even walking, she rounded the last corner of the home straight with her torso badly lurched over to her left.
Medics repeatedly tried to assist her, but still showing the mental capacity to understand that if one of them touched her, she would be disqualified, she waved and shooed them away, even moving away from them when they tried to get close. All medical and aid staff were deliberating what to do, but noticed that she was still sweating. Realizing that if she was still perspiring, she still had fluids in her, they shadowed her approach to the finish line, making sure to not be near her, but close enough in case something terrible happened.
The winner of the woman’s marathon – Joan Benoit -had already finished some 24 minutes earlier, but in that moment, 70,000 were on their feet willing and urging Gabi home. The collective will of each person gasping in shock at the resilience of the single figure approaching the finish line.
Gabi continued to limp and lurch, occasionally holding her head, touching her white cap that covered her heavily sweated hair. As her steps became slower and ever more painful, she eventually made it across the line to fall into the arms of three waiting medics that rushed her straight to a unit where she could be treated for heat exhaustion and possible dehydration.
Miraculously, she was released from hospital after only two hours of intravenous hydration and cooling with ice packs and was on her way back to the Olympic village, completely unaware of the fuss she had created. The next day, she was being interviewed on TV, oblivious to why so many people were making what she considered a huge fuss.
She says, “Generally, I wasn’t happy about all this press. I thought it was not appropriate. I didn’t think it was that special, and I couldn’t understand why the press was so fascinated by it. By her standards, with no sense of arrogance, more one of humble understanding of how it all works, she says simply, “you try to at least finish your event.”
However, over the years the retired runner, but still active cross-country skier and mountain biker, has learned to understand why she is seen as someone who made an impact in so many people’s lives. Her unrelenting fight – that “Spartan” willpower – as it were, captivated millions across the world.
“I think people are always fascinated with something out of the ordinary,” she says. “If they see that it’s not that easy but still we fight through it, even if we don’t win, it shows the spirit of the Olympics. It’s not all about just winning. It’s also about being able to compete against the best in the world.”
“When that happens”, she adds, “Anything can happen.”
credits: sp.beijing2008.cn, runninginlate20s.blogspot, webdevil.