THE ORMSBY ORDEAL : Problem Is, Kathy Wasn’t the First Runner to Consider Jumping
In the hush of a Sunday morning, worshipers at the First Baptist Church bow their heads to pray for an ailing member, Kathy Ormsby.
When they first heard that she’d jumped off that bridge, they opened the church 30 minutes early to pray for her. Members of other area churches asked their ministers to include prayers for her, too. It was all they knew to do.
On June 4, 21-year-old Kathy Ormsby of Rockingham and North Carolina State University, aspiring medical missionary, A-student and NCAA record-holder at 10,000 meters, bolted from her race in the NCAA meet at Indianapolis, jumped off a nearby bridge and severed her spinal cord. She is permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
How is anyone to make sense of that?
“Not the way we saw her,” said George Whitfield, athletic director at Richmond County High School. Richmond has produced four pro athletes, among them the Philadelphia Eagles’ Mike Quick and the Dodgers’ Franklin Stubbs, and has retired one jersey--Ormsby’s.
“Everybody thought Kathy was the All-American girl. You know, the All-American, hometown girl,” Whitfield said. “She did well in her schoolwork, she did well in track, she’s very religious, a Christian girl, very interested in her church.
“And two finer people than Sallie and Dale Ormsby, you’ll never meet. Kathy’s daddy is head of the Burlington plant and probably held in as high regard as anybody I know. They’re quiet and somewhat to themselves. Just good down- to-earth Christian people.”
By all accounts, Ormsby’s parents are warm, caring and anything but pushy. If this could happen to Kathy, it probably could happen to anyone’s daughter.
The shocking thing is that it already has, to a Georgetown runner named Mary Wazeter. She was hospitalized for anorexia as a sophomore, went home to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and on Feb. 2, 1982, jumped off a railroad bridge into the Susquehanna River. She is permanently paralyzed from the chest down.
It also seems to have been contemplated--and to some degree, acted out--by others. The Ormsby incident sent a shiver through the sport. A lot of people seem to have been reminded of someone.
Dick Brown, former director of Athletics West in Eugene, Ore., said:
“There are some women distance runners I know who had the same thoughts that Kathy must have had, and didn’t completely follow through. I know people who have had the pills in their hand, with a glass of water. I know people who have taken the first pill.”
Don Lockerbie, University of North Carolina track and cross-country coach from 1981-85, said:
“I had one occasion where a runner took an overdose of cold-remedy pills. She thought she could do herself in, or she was trying to attract someone’s attention. She was found at 3 in the morning, wandering around campus with 20-30 pills in her stomach.
“I had another young lady in 1982 who told some teammates that she’d stand on the 10th floor of her dorm. She said, ‘Sometimes I just stand out here and think about jumping.’ ”
Scott Pengelly, a psychologist who counsels Athletics West competitors, said:
“Did I hear anyone say, ‘There but for fortune go I or somebody I know?’ Yes, I did hear that. I heard myself say that, ‘That’s just like . . . ' and then fill in the athlete you’re treating who’s talking about the same sequence of thoughts. I got phone calls that said, ‘I think this is about me.’ ”
Whatever is going on is thought to cut across other sports, and to involve males, too. Gymnastics and swimming are sports mentioned prominently, but there may be more.
Pengelly said he has talked to six competitors with suicidal thoughts in two years: one male and one female track athlete, a male basketball player, a female gymnast, a female dancer and a female dog trainer.
There are also accounts of widespread anorexia among women runners, gymnasts, and other athletes. It all adds up to the suggestion that something alarming is happening and is being accepted as routine.
Track & Field News, which bills itself as “The Bible of the Sport,” is running only a short news item on Ormsby in its July issue, and plans nothing more.
WHERE BIZARRE IS THE NORM . . .
If the group norms are bizarre--one distance runner’s own description--what can happen in those moments when emotion drives a competitor to the edge?
And the group norms are different, all right.
“A real top-notch distance runner needs to be obsessive-compulsive,” said Jack Bacheler, a two-time Olympic distance man, now an entomology professor at North Carolina State. “Or somebody with equal talent is going to be that way and beat him.
“You’re going to see some bizarre behavior. I was in Florida training with Frank Shorter. He had a string of something over 700 days in a row of never missing a workout. That’s two workouts a day, whether he was sick or injured. That’s pretty unusual.”
--Of Joan Benoit, who underwent knee surgery 17 days before the ’84 Olympic trials and had a bicycle mounted above her bed so she could pedal with her arms while recuperating, maintaining some of her conditioning.
--Of Mary Shea, daughter of former N.C. State Coach Mike Shea, who became a nun when she left track.
“Mary was very, very religious,” said Bacheler, who coached her. “I know she was concerned when she lost that she’d let me down, that she’d let N.C. State down, that she’d let the Big Guy Up There down. I don’t think that made it any easier, especially.”
--Of Mary’s sister Julie. Bacheler said that she could, and did, train “to the point of exhaustion.” Athletics West offered her a stipend if she’d just quit training for a year.
Said Doris Brown Heritage, a two-time Olympian now coaching women at Seattle Pacific College: “Personality-type is a big part of it. There are some people--over-achievers, loners--who like to do things their own way. They’re not happy on a basketball team. And certain sports require a lot of innate ability. You either have it or you don’t.
“Sure, innate ability will make it easier, but everybody can become a better distance runner. We’re still at that point with women where, if you work hard, you can be near the top. That’s not the case with men. If you look at their standards, they barely change from year to year. But women’s records are being broken very quickly.”
Even for settled-down, grown- up competitors with husbands, children, jobs and outside interests, the experience is intense.
Jacqueline Hansen was the women’s record-holder in the marathon as late as 1975. She and the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the L.A. Olympics to include women’s 5,000- and 10,000-meter races. She lives in Marina Del Rey with her husband, son and memories.
“Even me, even mellow me, I guess I’m a very goal-oriented person,” Hansen said. “I could tell stories about how I reacted. I’m a brooder. I mean, I really brood. If I don’t have a good race, I brood, I get angry, I cry.
“I dropped out of races more than once. One time I didn’t even get to the starting line. There’s something about running track that makes you feel like you want to throw up before you get to the starting line. It’s almost as bad if you don’t feel that way. It means you don’t care.
“I was probably the world record-holder and maybe a lot was expected of me, or it may have been in my mind. You get the feeling everybody’s watching you. You feel so conspicuous out there. I mean, you’re just out there.
“I was in the restroom throwing up and I just couldn’t deal with the pressure. I decided that was too much. If I was throwing up before the start, then things had gotten out of perspective.”
It is arguable whether women are especially affected. A lot of women’s track coaches--who are still predominantly male--insist that they are.
Said Lockerbie, who coached both men and women at North Carolina:
“Distance running on the women’s side is more cutthroat and more competitive than any men’s program I know. Girls are less team-oriented. They are very, very emotional about their performance. They show their cards.
“I could bring my five best men together and say, ‘Gentlemen, today’s workout is going to be five 800s at this pace.’ My five guys would go out and do that workout. They’d probably do it a little faster than I said. Maybe one of them would kick on the last lap and beat everybody by 20 yards.
“Now if that was girls, you’d have a lot of bitching and moaning. One girl might come to me and say, ‘You said to run at this pace and so-and-so did it five seconds faster, and I don’t like it.’
“I would have to watch out that certain girls didn’t run with each other. I could take two guys who didn’t like each other and they could run together.
“I would have to watch out that certain girls didn’t room together. You would think the high school state champion from Ohio would like to room with the high school state champion from Alabama, that they’d get up in the morning and jog together. Definitely, that was not the case. But it would work if one woman was an upperclassman and the other was a freshman.
“At the same time, the women were always closer than the men when it came to a team dinner the night before a meet, to a team prayer, to celebrating a teammate’s birthday. The guys never remembered a birthday. The girls never forgot.
“When my men ran poorly and lost, the first thing they did was blame the coach. The second thing was the weather. The third thing they blamed was a particular instance--this guy elbowed me, I got boxed in.
“When a young lady loses a race, the first thing she blames is herself. Then she has a letdown and asks, ‘What are my coach and my parents going to think?’ ”
A woman might not be expected to embrace such a characterization wholeheartedly. Not one like Hansen, the veteran of a two-year court fight to give women the right to compete that “men were born with.”
“You know what happened to women runners in 1928,” Hansen says. “A few women fainted at the finish line in the marathon and they took our event away until 1960. All the progress we’ve made, I’d hate to jeopardize that by saying, ‘They can’t handle it, they’re too young, too immature.’ That’s what I’m afraid of.”
But Hansen also listens as her husband, Tom Sturak, a track agent, describes the dependence he sees women track athletes putting on male coaches, and agrees there is something to it.
Heritage said: “I think women do have a harder time leaving things on the track then men do. Women do tend to replay things rather than letting them go.
“I think I was a lot like Kathy (Heritage knows Ormsby). I took everything very seriously. I am very religious. I always envied people who could say, ‘OK, this was a bad day, forget about it.’ When I was knocked down in the ’68 Olympics, there wasn’t a night that I wasn’t in horrible pain at the memory for four years, until I got another chance.”
Lockerbie wonders if men don’t have the advantage of longer exposure to team sports--"3-year-old boys are given those little baseball uniforms"--affording them more time to get used to the indignities of competition.
Heritage wonders if it doesn’t go deeper than that, to earliest conditioning.
“Women are taught to please,” she said. “Men are expected to please themselves. Isn’t that really what you’d expect to see when they compete?”
If there is reason to believe that a lot of women runners are anorexic, that would also suggest a high level of anguish.
It’s much more than just a suggestion.
“I’ve just been with some coaches last night,” said Pengelly, the psychologist, speaking from Eugene while at The Athletics Congress meet. “I’m not at liberty to say everything I was told, but there were several women in that race (the NCAA 10,000) in trouble. They are in trouble still. And it’s not just that race.”
Did Pengelly mean they were anorexic?
By several, did he mean half?
Hansen said: “It’s a problem. I hate to admit it, but it’s more prevalent among women runners. You know me, ever the feminist. I hate to say anything is sex-related. I suspect a lot of male distance runners have a problem, but nobody points the finger at them because they’re men.
“But you do see a lot of it. I’ve roomed with women distance runners who I knew to be bulimics, who’d go on (eating) binges and then do weird things. . . .
“Or women who’d refuse to eat. They’d do all these subtle things like playing with their food. They wouldn’t bring attention to themselves by refusing to order. They’d go ahead and order every time the team goes to eat. You watch them and you see they’re just not eating.
“I had roommates like that. It really shocked me. I used to make jokes about it. I don’t anymore. I realized it’s serious.”
KATHRYN LOVE ORMSBY
Sweat pouring in rivers down her face, Kathy pushed herself onward. “Just a little farther, you can make it,” she said to herself as she ignored the pain, ignored the cramped, tired feeling that started in her feet and crept up her legs, ignored the burning sensation in her lungs that made each breath a form of agony, forced herself to continue the long trek, not daring to look back for fear of giving an opponent psychological advantage.
--"Treasure Chest ’83,” Richmond County H.S. Yearbook A small, slender girl, with short dark hair, and an embarrassed grin. In half her yearbook pictures, it’s almost a wince.
There are a lot of pictures: Kathy with the track team, the cross- country team, on Homecoming Court, with the Latin Club, and the biggest of all, a full-pager taken on Kathy Ormsby Day.
The mayors of the county’s five communities combined for that one. There was the awards banquet, at which Kathy, the valedictorian with the 99% average, won something like 15 prizes.
She’s slightly built, the exception being her legs, which are a good deal bigger than you’d expect.
“Tremendous leg strength,” said Whitfield, the Richmond High athletic director. “I used to tell her how pretty her legs looked when she wore shorts. She’d laugh. She didn’t want anyone to brag on her, for some reason.
“She was very quiet, very shy, unassuming. You’d see her in the hall and say congratulations on a great race or something, and it was almost like she was so shy, she hated to hear it. She would just smile. She never would make any comment about it.
“I thought she was cute as she could be. I’m guessing in high school, she didn’t have a half-dozen dates.”
Said a classmate of Ormsby: “If that.”
Kathy ran sprints in junior high. There was no girls’ cross-country team when she started Richmond, so she played volleyball for a year. She started running longer distances. Several people remember her father having a question about it.
“It was hard for Dale to accept,” said Alice Moehler, a family friend who lives a few doors down on Curtis Street. “I think he just thought it was too much, that he’d have liked it better if she hadn’t gotten so involved. But when she did, they went to all her meets. They were at Indianapolis.”
Said Charlie Bishop, Ormsby’s high school cross-country coach: “Kathy’s parents, at a track meet, you wouldn’t ever hear them. They’d cheer, but like you’d cheer for someone’s else’s kid. They never pushed that girl.”
As a junior, Kathy led the state cross-country finals most of the way but fell off to second. They later found that she had been running on a stress fracture of a bone in one ankle. In her senior year, Kathy was the state cross-country champion.
She became the object of a spirited UNC-N.C. State recruiting battle. It was a different time than the ‘60s when, Jacqueline Hansen said, “I probably knew every woman runner in the country on a first-name basis.”
Now there were scholarships to be won, championships to be competed for. Under Title IX, women’s programs were to be raised to parity promptly. One year, Lockerbie was given 16 scholarships at North Carolina, 10 for women, 6 for men.
Lockerbie, recruiting against State’s Rollie Geiger, found Kathy “a great person with, I thought, minimal confidence.”
Lockerbie hoped to prevail, since he, like Ormsby, is a devout Christian, and also since Kathy’s mom is a Tar Heel.
Geiger won. His was the high-powered women’s distance program. And Kathy’s dad went to State.
“I was trying to sell our program as an underdog, to Kathy, who was an underdog,” Lockerbie said. “Even though she might not have the greatest confidence, she was a young lady who always wanted to be good and would work hard.
“Rollie was able to attract All-Americans. I think Rollie saw her as somebody who’d fit in well, somebody who’d work hard for four years. (Ormsby started with half a scholarship in track, half in academics.) But she immediately made a name for herself.”
Should an ominous pattern be emerging? It’s not that simple.
Ormsby was certainly shy, but she had a couple of close high school girlfriends. At State, Bacheler, who still trains some runners, remembers that Kathy alone of the State runners, would come over and say hello to his girls.
“Not to talk about what she was doing, to ask about what they were doing,” Bacheler said. “And these girls were nowhere near her stature.”
At State, Ormsby also went out with a runner named Charlie Purser. He visited her at Rockingham for a week one summer.
As a junior, she was 5-foot-5, 103 pounds going into the NCAA meet, probably five pounds lighter than she was in high school. Everyone at home noticed, Whitfield, Bishop, Alice Moehler.
“Sort of hollow-chested,” Whitfield remembered.
Nobody thinks she was anorexic, just dedicated as usual. Moehler remembered how Kathy never would eat junk food, how she would buy health food at the Winn-Dixie.
Everyone said it was almost to the point that you might worry about it. It never seems to have actually reached that point. Kathy was always studying, but never seemed uncomfortable with it; was shy but popular; thin but vigorous.
If later it all seemed a little much, everyone knew it was also what they do, they being distance runners, or ambitious college kids, or whomever.
Even the danger signs weren’t perceived as danger signs. It was what they do.
The race at Indianapolis wasn’t the first one Ormsby quit. Actually, she had a history of trouble in big meets, having dropped out of her first two NCAA cross-country championships.
Lockerbie said: “When she was a freshman in ’83, N.C. State had a very good chance. It was at Lehigh University, on a very cold day. Kathy tripped and fell or something. It was the first mile and she took herself out of the race.
“I don’t know what the score was, but I know if she’d have finished and just run a normal race, N.C. State would have been national champions. I think that was something that stayed with her.”
A year later, she dropped out in Milwaukee. Geiger was seen comforting a crying Ormsby in the parking lot.
Still, no one seems to have thought anything of it. Why should anyone? Tears are nothing new at a sports event.
And then Ormsby became a star. At the Penn Relays in April, she ran the 10,000 meters in 32 minutes 36.2 seconds, the women’s NCAA record.
She called it “a gift from God.” Track & Field News ran a feature on her and made her the favorite for the NCAA meet.
Among track people, however, the record was considered somewhat “soft.” The State runners had heard that Duke’s Ellen Reynolds was going out after a record, so they used her as a rabbit , to set a fast pace. On the last lap, Ormsby--running her first 10,000 on a track--shot by her.
Ormsby was anything but a strong favorite at Indianapolis. Several college women had already run faster 10Ks, but in mixed meets that didn’t count. And there were going to be two faster women in the national meet, Chris McMiken of Oklahoma State and Stephanie Herbst of Wisconsin.
How much pressure had the record put on Ormsby?
Nobody seems to have remarked on it before, but afterward teammate Connie Jo Robinson told writers from the New York Times and the Raleigh News & Observer that it had been a big jump for her.
“A lot of new things were happening to her. . . . She had stepped up. She was elite. She had started out as a 5:02 high school miler, so this was a big step up. She was on TV and in the newspapers.”
JUNE 4, 1986
With two-thirds of the race gone, Ormsby was in fourth place, within three strides of the lead, seemingly well placed.
Then she ran off the track, up the stands and out of the stadium. About 10 minutes later, a motorist summoned a campus policeman and reported a problem at the nearby bridge over the White River.
“In the two or three laps before, I thought she showed signs of stress on her face,” said Lockerbie, who was in the stands. “That’s something a coach looks for. But then that face went away. I thought she’d caught her second wind.
“Then she came down the straightaway and kept going. She ran up the stairs and behind a hot dog stand. She ran those steps with purpose. Usually when someone leaves a race, they jog inside or outside the track, put their hands on their knees, bend over because they’re angry or hurt. And then they try to find privacy. Kathy might have run faster on those steps than she had on the track.”
Whatever it means, Lockerbie isn’t the only one who thought that Ormsby ran faster on the steps than she had on the track. Curtis Frye, a State assistant coach, told Charlie Bishop the same thing.
Ormsby had fallen more than 30 feet to the river bank. An ambulance was called. Geiger waited at Ormsby’s side. According to police, Geiger said that Ormsby had told him she had jumped. The police report listed it as an apparent suicide attempt.
The news didn’t reach Rockingham until the next day. Alice Moehler started a collection in the neighborhood and got $700. When that was reported in a Raleigh newspaper, donations started arriving from there.
Ormsby was flown to Duke Medical center, where steel rods were placed in her back during a five-hour operation. Duke physicians confirmed the Indianapolis prognosis. Ormsby won’t walk again.
Connie Jo Robinson and several teammates visited Ormsby before she left Indianapolis. Robinson later said that Ormsby hadn’t tried to explain what she had done, which Robinson thought was a great sign.
“She never wants to step on anyone’s toes,” Robinson told the writers from New York and Raleigh. “And she wants to make sure everyone is pleased. So she always explains her actions.”
Robinson was asked what other competitors had been asking.
“No one asked why,” Robinson said. “No one. They just said, ‘We’re praying for her,’ and gave us cards.
“They didn’t need to know why. They know why. We’re all in the same boat. We feel the same pressure.”
Everyone close to the story has stopped discussing it: the Ormsbys, Connie Jo Robinson, Rollie Geiger. Besides the pain, there are insurance reasons. A proven suicide attempt might invalidate any insurance.
Geiger’s colleagues have leaped to his defense. Heritage called him “humane, top-notch in every respect.”
How unpredictable was this?
Lockerbie was asked, were he coaching again, if he’d do things differently. He said he would recruit another kind of athlete, not high school champions, necessarily, but young women who’d work hard.
“Like Kathy Ormsby,” Lockerbie said. It sounded like an irony he didn’t intend, or wasn’t even aware of.
Moments later, he was listing the sport’s problems.
“Girls who are pressured by their parents,” Lockerbie said. “They go off to college and they’re not prepared. Coaches who don’t communicate.”
But none of those seem to apply to Kathy Ormsby, someone said.
“You’re right,” Lockerbie said. “That, of course, is the horror.”