There are many attributes that can be used to describe a true Stotan. Perseverance, persistence, discipline, self-reliance, a love for nature, a zest for life, refusal to be dominated. There are more but those readily come to mind.
Gayle Olinekova was once the third fastest women's marathoner in the world. Her whole life, as you will read in the following article written by Lisa Goulian in 1986, was characterized by her overcoming obstacles, not being discouraged and finding a way to succeed.
Prepare to be totally inspired.
"Gayle Olinekova’s philosophy remains simple, as simple as putting one foot in front of the other: “When you’re sitting on the ground, you can’t fall any farther. But you’re going to stay there if you don’t get up and do something about it.”
The 33-year-old marathoner, author and fitness guru has picked herself up more times than she cares to remember.
Seeing Olinekova fly around the track at UCLA’s Drake Stadium, it’s hard to believe it was a little more than two years ago that she lay in a hospital bed, her head battered, her Olympic dream shattered.
Although she was once the world’s third-ranked woman marathoner, inexperience, illness and politics had kept her out of the Games.
But 1984 looked like her year.
Olinekova, a Canadian citizen living in the Caribbean, was to represent St. Lucia in the Olympic marathon in Los Angeles. But four weeks before the Games, she was training near her home in Westlake Village when a driver ran through a stop sign and hit her. She wound up with a severe concussion and was forced to watch from her bed as American Joan Benoit won the gold medal.
“You know when things happen to you and you say, ‘Oh, this must be a blessing in disguise,’ ” she said. “Well, on that one, the disguise was so damned good that I can’t figure it out to this day what the blessing was.
“I just couldn’t believe it. All of a sudden, one second you’re doing fine and the next second your head is going through the windshield. I was depressed. I got angry. I felt sorry for myself.”
Olinekova’s head didn’t actually go through the windshield, but she did suffer a severe concussion that kept her from running for six months. She picked herself up and took up swimming until she was healthy enough to jog a few miles each day. She has worked herself back up to long-distance running and is currently training with half-miler Deann Gutowski in preparation for the Los Angeles Marathon next March. This is a venture Olinekova calls “Comeback No. 4,021.”
“There have come some dark moments when I’ve felt almost that I’m a mistress to this thing called running,” Olinekova said. “And it’s broken my heart a million times, but I’m so in love with it that I can’t let it go.”
As a child, she would race the bus to school instead of riding it. At 15, she broke a Toronto girls high school record with a 62-second quarter mile. At 16, she represented Canada in international competition.
Olinekova, who grew up in a poor family, began running, she said, because she wanted to beat the little rich girls. “But I found out they were really easy to beat because they give up so easy,” she said. “Then, I suppose I wanted to run to prove something to everybody and to myself. Just that I could do it.”
The neighbors had always considered her a strange child. One day, when she was in high school, Olinekova ran through the streets of her Toronto neighborhood in a rainstorm. She was wearing a sweat suit and a shower cap, enough to raise a few blinds as well as a few eyebrows, and enough to embarrass her parents--again. But such attention had long since stopped bothering the free-spirited teen-ager.
“I think the most important thing I learned from my childhood is that I was different,” she said. “And the day that I discovered I was different, I think for the first time I really became happy because I realized I could succeed.”
Different in that she had legs so muscular she couldn’t find boots to fit over her calves, legs that Sports Illustrated would later call “the greatest to ever stride the earth.” Different in that she had the courage to leave home at age 17, eventually heading for Europe after a few running disappointments.
She had entered international competition with a bang, and in June, 1969, was named to the Canadian national team. She then contracted mononucleosis, which slowed her down until 1971, when she finished second in the 800 meters at the Pan American Games.
In 1972, she was injured a few weeks before the Canadian Olympic trials. She was sprinting on a Toronto track when she collided with a 10-year-old girl. Olinekova suffered a fractured skull and whiplash.
College was the next venture, but after one semester as a fine arts major at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, the classroom became too confining. She cleaned out her bank account and four days later found herself sitting on a dock in Amsterdam with $50 in her pocket, the same amount she took home with her two years later.
In between, she fasted once for 40 days, slept in phone booths and worked as a barmaid and a grape picker. She hitchhiked across Europe, visiting the Soviet Union, Holland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, studied a few languages, suffered from cholera and grew up fast.
And her love for running blossomed. Between adventures, Olinekova found time to train at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, and in August, 1974, she won the 800 in a prestigious international meet in Zurich.
When she returned to Montreal in the summer of 1975, she had her heart set on making the 1976 Canadian Olympic team. Still too weak from the effects of cholera, she was unimpressive at the trials.
Another blow, but not enough to keep Olinekova from getting back on the track.
She was running along Lake Ontario a few months after the trials, preparing for the upcoming cross-country season, when she met and fell in love with Michael Grandi, a singer-songwriter. When he first spotted her, she was so far ahead of him that he thought she was a man. Only a man, he assumed, could run that fast.
“As I tried to catch up with this guy, I was so out of breath, I was about to give up, when I saw these pigtails,” Grandi said. He introduced himself and after running a few hundred miles with her over the next several weeks, he convinced her to become a marathoner.
She was skeptical at first because whenever she ran long distances, she developed severe bronchitis. But Grandi helped her change her diet, took her to Florida, and in January, 1977, she ran her first 26.2-mile race, the Greater Miami Marathon. Her time of 3:29 was best among the women and qualified her for the Boston Marathon in April. She finished fourth among the women at Boston in 2:56:55.
By then, Olinekova had become impassioned with long-distance running. “When I’m out there,” she said, “I think about the pain, think of what’s happening, and I just try to go to the next tree, the end of the next block, to the next person in the crowd wearing the color red, to the next stupid little dog I see. If you’re on mile one and you say, ‘Oh, I have 26.1 miles to go,’ you’ve had it.”
In the next few years, her international ranking fluctuated between fourth and 10th, and she continued to cut her times--first under three hours, then under 2:50. In 1979, she won the New Orleans Marathon in 2:38:11.
After training with two- to five-pound weights attached to her ankles, Olinekova finished the 1979 Fiesta Bowl Marathon in Arizona in 2:36:12, the third-best women’s time that year. A few months later, she ran a 2:35:12 in New Orleans, the third-best women’s time ever.
She was striding toward the 1980 Moscow Olympics until Canada followed the U.S. boycott. Olinekova was devastated.
“Actually, 1980, in a lot of ways, was the worst,” Grandi said. “She was in great shape, but there was nowhere to go.”
She channeled her anger into organizing the Jordache Los Angeles Marathon, which had a purse of $100,000. Olinekova was one of a few thousand who attempted the run from the Hollywood Bowl down Sunset Boulevard to the Pacific Ocean. She broke her foot at the 11th mile when a tendon snapped and took a piece of the bone with it, but she kept running for another 10 miles. By that time, her foot had swelled so badly that one of her shoes had to be cut off her foot.
It was another “blessing in disguise” period in her life. She was on crutches for seven months and needed $10,000 for a leg operation. Athletes were calling her for advice.
“I thought, wait a minute, I don’t want to give any pep talks. I’m the one who needs the pep talk,” she said. “Well, I didn’t get it, so I thought, you want something done, do it yourself.”
The injury brought Olinekova to a crossroads in her life. She asked herself what motivated her to run, and the soul-searching yielded what she called her “10 commandments for success.”
“I thought, if I could motivate myself, then almost anyone could be motivated by this.”
The 10 commandments became the first 10 chapters of “Go For It,” a motivational life style book published in 1982. It became a best seller in 18 days. The book was dedicated not to world-class athletes, but to the masses.
“They just carry on, go for it every day and get the job done,” Olinekova said. “There’s no glory in it. They just do it to do a job well done, whether it’s raising their kids or whatever. You see people running. They’re not thinking about the Olympic Games. They’re trying to fit into their dress for the high school reunion.”
Olinekova threw herself into writing like she trains--all out. While touring the country to promote “Go For It,” she wrote her second book, “Super Legs in Six Weeks,” which was published in 1983. Last year, she wrote “The Sensuality of Strength,” an account of what it’s like to live inside an athletic body. Her publishers, Simon and Schuster, hired one of Vogue’s top fashion photographers to shoot pictures of Olinekova in the Caribbean, where she danced in the ocean in evening gowns and rode a horse on the beach.
Her latest book, “Forever Young,” an instructional work about the effects of aging and how to achieve longevity, will be out in January.
Olinekova and running partner Gutowski have also joined forces in forming Extracize, a program designed to get company health care costs and absentee levels down. It includes aerobics and smoke-stopper classes as well as motivational lectures.
“I guess this is our way of feeling maybe we could make a difference,” Olinekova said. “Maybe we could help people become more productive and kind of share the experiences we’ve known in being athletes. It’s wonderful to get a chance to see people just starting out and then they start getting turned on by this thing, by getting stronger before your eyes.”
Olinekova and Gutowski have been training together for six months, running 800-meter sprints twice a week at UCLA. Gutowski, a much more experienced short-distance runner, is amazed by her partner’s perseverance.
“I’ll start out ahead of her, but no matter what happens in the training session, she’ll come up on my shoulder, really try to push it and go for it,” Gutowski said. “She never gives up. It takes guts to come from behind and keep pushing, and that inspires me.”
Olinekova, who holds a nutrition degree from Bernadine University in Florida, has worked as a consultant for many athletes, including former Raider Lyle Alzado. She met him at Gold’s Gym in Venice after he had been traded to the Raiders from Cleveland in 1982 and helped him achieve a balance between weight lifting and running.
“She extended my career four years,” said Alzado, who retired from football after last season. “I used to have to hold on to her shorts to keep up with her. Gayle has a tremendous gift of not giving up on things. If we were doing a specific kind of weight training, if she failed on it once, she’d come back a few days later or a few weeks later and do it.
“She has an inner drive that’s probably unparalleled. I’ve been a professional athlete for 15 years and I’ve never seen anyone like her.”
One of Olinekova’s favorite training projects was a 74-year-old man who was preparing for a 10K in Beverly Hills in 1984. His goal was to finish in under 1 hour, 10 minutes, but he ran the race in 56 minutes, beating more than half of the field of 4,000.
In one of her less formal training sessions, she remembers being on the beach and seeing a heavyset man jogging by the shore. He was breathing heavily and then, disgusted with himself, he stopped.
“Why are you stopping now,” Olinekova asked him.
“I thought I’d run a lot further but I just tired out,” he answered.
“Well, just rest a little and then start again,” she said.
“Yeah really, I’m allowed to stop,” he said, and then started up again with new enthusiasm.
Olinekova has many such stories to tell and is currently in negotiations for her own weekly cable television show. She has been a regular commentator on ESPN’s “Sports Look” for the last year.
With all her responsibilities, running remains an integral part of her life. But once again, the motivation has changed. Now she wants to win to prove a natural, drug-free life style has its rewards. And with all the success she has achieved, running keeps Olinekova’s feet close to the ground.
“There’s an honesty in it that I really like,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done the day before. You could be on national TV. Millions of people could have seen you. But the next day, when you go out to run 10 miles, it’s still 10 miles. I think it keeps you very focused, keeps you in touch with things.
“This may sound silly, but when I lace up my sneakers in the morning to go out, I still get excited. I think of running fast, think of finding a great hill, being completely out of control. I don’t know, I guess I’m grown up now but I still love that feeling. I just love that incredible power that you feel--personal power.”