Fire Blazes Again in Star Distance Runner : Apathy Vanishes and Monica Joyce Gallops Toward Seoul Olympics

Times Staff Writer

Monica Joyce is focusing on the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. She's looking forward to the Games. That's good news for her--but not for her opponents.

It wasn't always so. In 1984, the Hermosa Beach resident and El Camino College graduate could muster no enthusiasm about running in the 3,000-meter race. The 29-year-old athlete, who competes for Ireland, was unmotivated and frustrated with her performances.

"Here she was, training for the Olympics," said Joyce's coach and husband, Fred LaPlante, "and she wasn't excited. Her attitude was 'so what?' I think she did well considering where her head was."

In '84, Joyce qualified for the Olympics in both the 3,000 and 1,500 meters but chose to run the 3,000. A fifth-place finish (8:54) in her heat prevented her from competing in the final.

"I still feel that on that day I ran the best that I could," Joyce said. "Of course I wanted to get to finals. Everyone wants to make it that far and get a medal."

Joyce was an indoor-track force at the beginning of 1984. She had won the Mobil Grand Prix series by sweeping five one-mile races and ran a personal best of 8:49 in the 3,000.

But that was a brief comeback period preceded by a disappointing year that brought with it signs of burnout. Joyce says the only good thing about 1983 was that she ran a personal best of 15.27 in the 5,000 meters.

"It was just a horrible year," she said, shrugging. "I had a bad case of lack of confidence. I feared competition so much and I had done a lot of damage by pounding myself to the ground."

One of Ireland's most popular athletes was in a mental rut. She was in great physical shape and held Irish records in every event from the 1,500 to the 5,000 meters, but her confidence was at ground level.

"I wanted to do it (run) so badly," she said. "I was fit and healthy, but I just wasn't in the right mind set. I was worrying too much about who else was running and what kind of training they were doing. I just couldn't focus."

The problem started shortly after Joyce left college in 1982. After two and a half seasons at San Diego State University, she decided to compete overseas in world-class events. She had a successful summer in Europe, running personal bests in almost every race, but at the end of the summer the thrill of competing against the world's top athletes was gone. It was no longer fun, and Joyce regretted leaving college early.

"I think she missed the team aspect," said Canadian Lynn Williams, who was Joyce's teammate and a bronze medalist in the 3,000 meters at the '84 Olympics. "Suddenly the set schedule and the support weren't there. That's why she ran into a lot of problems."

LaPlante, who is the USC women's track coach, was the women's track coach at San Diego State when Joyce competed there. He advised her to stay in school and said it wasn't long before she was in a slump.

"Every day was a struggle," he said. "She always came back from workouts drained. It was clear that she needed a break."

Making the transition from top collegiate distance runner to a struggling athlete was a difficult adjustment for Joyce. She had won conference titles in the 800-, 1,500- and 3,000-meter races at San Diego State and placed second in the 1,500 at the NCAA meet in 1981.

Even after the Olympics, Joyce couldn't return to that form, and she still hasn't made a complete comeback.

In 1985 she had some good races on the U. S. road racing circuit but took time off to get married. In 1986 she tried a new coach, Chuck DeBus at the L. A. Track Club, and took the summer off.

It wasn't until 1987 that Joyce felt good about training again. She finally started feeling the confidence that allowed her to be successful in college. It was the kind of self-assurance that helped Joyce earn fame in a foreign country in fewer than three years.

Before that she was often pursued by the media in her hometown in Sussex, England.

The publicity started when she was 11 and won her first cross-country race. Joyce and her older sister Regina, who competed in the marathon at the 1984 Olympics, were England's top distance runners as juniors.

Both competed internationally for Great Britain as teen-agers, but in 1982 they became Irish citizens because their parents are Irish and chances of competing for that country were better.

"We were always very, very competitive," said Regina, who set school records in every event from the 1,500 meters through the marathon at the University of Washington. "But physically she's far more talented than I, specially now because she's come a long way. She's grown emotionally and matured."

Joyce should be chosen to compete in the Olympics this summer, but selections won't be official until the middle of August. Unlike the United States, Ireland doesn't have Olympic trials to qualify for the Games, so selection is based on performances.

"I like it that way," Joyce said. "Sometimes so much pressure is put on the trials and often you work so hard to make the trials that it's almost like 'I did it.' It's hard after that to get back up for the Olympics."

Joyce has met the Olympic standard in the 10,000 meters, a new event for her that she plans to run in Seoul. Ireland's qualifying time is 33 minutes and Joyce finished in 32.36 at the Mt. San Antonio College relays in April.

"The interesting thing about Monica," said DeBus, who has coached more than 170 athletes on U. S. national teams, "is that she has a wide range of events that she's able to run very well. Obviously she has world-class genetic predisposition for distance running. She can be as good as anybody."

For the first time in five years, Joyce believes that. Unlike the last few years, she feels great physical and mental strength and is anxious to be in the Olympics.

"I feel I'm not finished yet," Joyce said. "I'm hungry for it again and I'm finally letting things flow. I know there's more to come. There's better to come."

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