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Long-Distance Calling : Jacqueline Hansen Connects With Laszlo Tabori to Break Running Barriers

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Laszlo Tabori seemed a little embarrassed when asked if he could have foreseen that Jacqueline Hansen would become one of this country’s premier distance runners after he began coaching her in the fall of 1970.

“Quite honestly, no,” he said.

Less than 3 years later, Hansen won the Boston Marathon. Twice, she set world marathon records, in 1975 becoming the first woman to run the 26.2-mile race faster than 2 hours 40 minutes.

But all Tabori could see in the fall of 1970, when he met the 21-year-old college junior, was that she had difficulty fitting into her running shorts.

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“I’ll admit it,” Hansen said. “I was fat.”

Eighteen years later, with Tabori again coaching her, Hansen is a lean 110 pounds and still winning, competing, at 39, in masters’ races for women over 35.

In Tabori’s office at his Van Nuys running apparel and equipment store recently, he and Hansen talked about her pioneering role in women’s distance running, which was recognized earlier this month when she was inducted into the Cal State Northridge Hall of Fame, and Tabori’s contributions to it in an era when most coaches thought women were incapable of running a single mile, much less 26.

Others influenced Hansen, most notably Dixie Griffin, a former shotputter who started one of the city’s first girls’ high school track and field programs during Hansen’s senior year at Granada Hills.

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For a young woman who got more enjoyment from seeing how far instead of how fast she could run, that was a frustrating time. High school girls were allowed to compete at distances no longer than 440 yards. Even at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, where she enrolled the next year, the longest distance for women was 880 yards.

Hansen tried to compete in the shorter distances, including the high hurdles. She said that she still has the scars to show for her enthusiasm.

More hurdles were ahead. At Northridge, known as Valley State College at the time, she was the only member of the women’s track and field team in her first year there.

“I was coached by the women’s basketball teacher,” she said. “She allowed me to work out with the men. We had one meet, and they gave me a uniform.

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“But I got lucky. I was running around the campus one day at Valley State and ran across a woman running. It was a miracle in those days to see another woman running.”

The woman told Hansen about Tabori, who, besides serving as an assistant coach at Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys, also coached other athletes for the Los Angeles Track Club.

Hansen was more intrigued by the idea of running for the club, which at the time was considered one of the world’s best, than by the coach. She had never heard of Tabori.

“I had no idea that he had been a world-class runner or that he was a world-class coach,” she said. “If I had known, I might have been too intimidated to go to him.”

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Fifteen years earlier, in 1955, Tabori was one of the world’s best middle-distance runner.

That year, running for his native Hungary, he became the third man to break 4 minutes in the mile, behind Great Britain’s Roger Bannister and Australia’s John Landy, and held the world record in the 1,500 meters.

One of the favorites to win the gold medal in the 1,500 and also considered a contender in the 5,000 at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, he was distracted by news reports about the Soviet Union’s invasion of his country to extinguish the Hungarian Revolution.

After finishing fourth in the 1,500 and sixth in the 5,000, he, along with 36 other members of the Hungarian Olympic team, defected to the United States in order to escape Soviet rule.

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“I had my Olympic uniform, my running gear and nothing else,” he said. “But it was easier for me because I didn’t have a wife and children. Many of the others did.”

He left his parents and two sisters behind, although a sister later joined him in the United States and now lives in the Bay Area. He never again saw his father, who died in 1963, but his mother visited him and his family in 1970. He saw her again when he returned to Hungary in 1981. She died 2 years later.

Tabori retired from running in 1962 and settled into a career as an engineering technician, designing wheelchairs and rehabilitation equipment in Santa Monica. But he missed the sport and returned as a coach in 1967 with the L.A. Track Club.

What separated Tabori from most other coaches in the United States at the time was that he employed the same rigorous training regimen for women as for men. He and a Cal State Fullerton sociologist, Jonathan J. Brower, wrote a book in 1980 titled, “Women’s Running: Slim Down and Speed Up.”

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“Women have to carry babies for 9 months,” Tabori said recently. “Who says they’re not as strong as men? In long-distance swimming, swimming across the channels, the women are strongest. Who says they’re not as strong as men?”

He learned that from his coach, Mihaly Igloi, who had defected to the United States at the same time as Tabori and also coached with the L.A. Track Club. Igloi coached women and men together in the early 1950s in Hungary.

Tabori also didn’t believe that women would collapse if they tried to run farther than 800 meters.

In 1967, though, that was still a minority opinion. Not until 1972 were women allowed to run 1,500 meters in the Olympics. It was 12 years later, at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, that women competed in their first Olympic marathon.

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Hansen ran her first marathon in 1972, the Western Hemisphere in Culver City, and was so certain that her parents would disapprove that she did not tell them about it before the race.

“They weren’t supportive at that time of my running,” she said. “They thought that I should quit fooling around, finish school, get married and start a family.

“The day of the marathon, we had a big family dinner. I told them I was going out for my morning run. But it took a lot longer than I thought. I won and had to attend the awards ceremony. Then I had to go change clothes at Laszlo’s house.

“I knew I was going to be in trouble when I got home because I wasn’t there to help with the dinner. I walked in, and my family started applauding. I forgot that my aunt lived near the course. She saw the whole thing. I think that’s what won them over because they paid my way to Boston the next year.”

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Not even Tabori will say today that he knew Hansen would win in Culver City, but he never discouraged her.

“There was a philosophy among coaches at the time that you run the marathon only when you’re too slow to run anything else,” Hansen said. “Marathoners weren’t considered important athletes.

“But when I asked him if I could run the marathon, he said that it was something I had to find out for myself. He was giving his blessing. He said that he knew I would go far.”

After 10 years with Tabori, Hansen left him in 1980. She took a year off from running to have a baby and then moved to Oregon with her husband and young son. When she returned to Los Angeles, she had physical problems and barely qualified for the 1984 U.S. Olympic women’s marathon trials.

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She failed to make the team, but it was important for her to at least compete in the trials. As an advocate for increased opportunities for women in distance running, she had fought to have the marathon included in the Olympics.

Hansen also was instrumental in a 1984 lawsuit that would have required the International Olympic Committee to add 5,000- and 10,000-meter races for women to the schedule in Los Angeles. The IOC won in court, but, under pressure, included a 10,000-meter event on the program for women this year in Seoul.

In December of 1986, Hansen returned to Tabori, who now coaches the San Fernando Valley Track Club at Valley College. She told him that she wanted him to prepare her for the over-35 division of the World Veterans Games 12 months later in Melbourne.

Even though she is better at longer distances, she said that she wanted to enter the 1,500 and the 5,000 because those were the distances that Tabori had run 20 years earlier at the Summer Olympics in Melbourne.

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Tabori does not have fond memories of 1956.

“We didn’t know whether to go to the Olympics,” he said. “Every day, the athletes had to report to a central area in Budapest for the latest information. But it wasn’t safe to walk in the streets. You could hear shots fired. For 5 weeks, we couldn’t train.”

Hungarian officials ultimately decided to send the athletes to Melbourne, but it was difficult for them to concentrate on games when there was a war at home.

“Every day, all of the athletes would gather to get the news of what was going on in Budapest,” he said. “One day, the city was surrounded by tanks. The next day, the uprising started. It was like World War II all over again. How do you compete when that is going on?”

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No one can say that Tabori, who was 25 at the time, did not compete well in the 1,500. He was hand-timed in 3:42.4, the same as the silver medalist, East Germany’s Klaus Richtzenhain, and the bronze medalist, Australia’s Landy. Ireland’s Ron Delany won in 3:41.2.

“With 120 meters to go, I had a little accident,” Tabori said. “I had to balance myself on Landy’s left inside shoulder or I would have fallen. Bud Greenspan showed it to me in one of his films years later. I didn’t know at the time, but I think now I would have won a medal if not for that accident. Probably, I should have been on the podium--first, second or third--in Melbourne.”

Thirty-one years later, Hansen was on the podium in Melbourne. Not once, but twice. And her thoughts were with Tabori. She won both the 1,500 and the 5,000.

When she returned, she gave the gold medal for the 1,500 to her coach.

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