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Race after race has been canceled since the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to everything from neighborhood 5Ks to major marathons and the Tokyo Olympics.
There’s one group of runners that knows the feeling better than most: athletes affected by the U.S. decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.
Most dashed race hopes in 2020 have been personal, not Olympian: a long-sought first Boston Marathon, breakthrough PR, or triumphant comeback after injury. Still, Julie Brown, who qualified to represent the U.S. in the 800 and 1500 meters in 1980, thinks the feeling of watching a long-dreamed-of race slip away—for reasons wholly beyond one’s control—is similar.
“If you put in so much effort and all of a sudden there’s nowhere to go, you feel lost. There’s a void,” said Brown, 65, now an attorney in San Diego.
By the time the Trials were held at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field in June 1980, Olympic hopefuls knew the U.S. team would not be going to the Moscow Games. Still, several athletes said they held out hope the proposed boycott would fall during the months leading up to the race, not unlike pandemic-era runners currently training with the knowledge a race could be postponed or called off at any time.
That made it easier to stay motivated, even amid speculation about the boycott that was “very disheartening,” said Francie Larrieu Smith, who qualified for five U.S. Olympic track and field teams, including 1980s.
“We knew the Trials were going to happen, and the only way to get (to the Games) if they changed their minds was to be there, so you had to train and prepare,” said Larrieu Smith, 67. Retired in 2018, she is the former men’s and women’s cross country and track coach at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.
She placed fourth in the 1500 meters, a result that left her frustrated, but qualified for the team because one of her competitors had not yet run an Olympic qualifying time.
“Athletes tend to have a great ability to compartmentalize and focus on what they need to do to get the job done,” Larrieu Smith said. She would go on to place fifth in the 10,000 meters at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and 12th in the marathon at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
“Looking back on 1980, that’s no doubt one of the things that got me through the initial stages when there was that question mark of whether we were going to compete,” she said. “Don’t listen to the noise, and continue to do what you can to prepare.”
Three-time U.S. Olympic team qualifier Chandra Cheeseborough credited her coach, Ed Temple, with helping the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles keep a similar positive mindset in the run-up to the 1980 Trials.
“He just reassured us, ‘You’re still going to go (to the Trials) and run no matter what,’” she said. “He continued to encourage us to go out and do our best, and that you never know what might happen.”
At the 1980 Trials, Cheeseborough won the 200 meters and placed third in the 100 meters. She went on to claim gold in two relays and silver in the 400 meters at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Now in her 26th year coaching track and field at her alma mater, Cheeseborough said she’s taking a similar approach with her athletes during the pandemic. She checks in with them daily while they train at home, preparing as though their fall cross country season will proceed.
“They’re excited, they’re ready to come back,” she said. “Right now, we’re just encouraging them to be safe, not be out there in all the crowds, and do the most they can do right now.”
After talk of the boycott moved from speculation to certainty, Brown kept hoping she would make it to the Olympics—which she had always seen as “the ultimate goal”—just on a different schedule, even after a torn Achilles tendon cut her post-1980 Trials racing season short.
“You have to just keep training, and know there’s four more years,” said Brown.
That also gave Brown a chance to switch her focus to a new distance. Just four years after qualifying in the 800 and 1500 meters, the longest distances open to women at the Olympics at the time, she placed 36th in the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Brown’s advice to runners whose race goals were put on hold during the pandemic? Keep hoping to hit those goals eventually, and in the meantime, “find ways to make running fun—then you’ll be more consistent.”
Still, even athletes who were able to stay motivated through the uncertainty (and then heartbreak) of the boycott and run well at the Trials struggled along the way.
“I was very much wondering, ‘Should I even keep going?’” said Madeline Manning Mims, who had already qualified for three Olympic teams in 1980 and initially hadn’t planned to be on the starting line at the Trials at all.
Mims, who won gold in the 800 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Games and added a silver in the 4 x 400-meter relay four years later in Munich, retired from track and field after the 1976 Olympics. Then she felt herself being drawn back into competition in the run-up to the Moscow Games.
Working with a new coach, Terry Jamison, who introduced her to plyometrics and weight training, Mims felt like she was running better than ever. That made talk of a boycott especially crushing.
Still, she liked seeing the progress she was making. Focusing on that, said Mims, 72, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was “probably the one thing that kept me going.”
“I knew I was in the best shape I had ever been in. I really wanted to prove that and wanted, in my fourth Trials, to win it and also have a great performance,” she said.
With her family watching, Mims broke her own Olympic Trials record to win the 800 meters.
Like other U.S. track athletes, Mims went on to compete in a series of overseas races after the 1980 Olympics. By the following year, other passions were calling. She went on to serve as an athletic chaplain, founding the United States Council for Sports Chaplaincy, and recorded contemporary gospel music.
She thinks she was able to deal with the disappointment of being forced to miss the 1980 Games in part because running was an important part of her life, but not the only important part of her life.
“If you make sport your god and you serve it; if it dies, you die,” she said.
Her experience with the boycott also reinforced her belief that even when circumstances seemed to take away one dream, other opportunities would follow.
“It was probably one of the greatest opportunities I had as an Olympian to share my faith and try to encourage some athletes to not give up and know and understand that you are beautifully and wonderfully made, and that’s why you train as hard as you do—to bring out the gift given to you.”