A year ago, PattiSue Plumer lay in the medical tent at the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis, trying to recover from the severe dehydration and heat exhaustion she had suffered in one of the most painful races of her career.
Vying for the third and final spot in the women's 3,000 meters, Plumer had overcome the heat--95 degrees and 60% humidity--and some tremendous competition--to stagger across the finish line with an Olympic berth in her grasp.
Hours later, after recovering, Plumer left the medical tent to resounding cheers.
Unfortunately, many of the well-wishers, like so many well-wishers before, said the wrong thing:
"Way to go, Polly! You're tough, Polly Sue!"
Once again, PattiSue Plumer was being confused with her younger sister, Polly, formerly a track star at Irvine's University High School and UCLA.
"I wanted to scream at them, 'Her name is PattiSue! Give the woman some respect," said her fiance, Steve Levere.
"But PattiSue just said, 'Forget it, Steve. It always happens.' "
If making the Olympic team last year wasn't enough to establish PattiSue's identity, perhaps her performance July 3 at Stockholm, Sweden was.
At Stockholm, Plumer ran second to East Germany's Kathrin Ullrich in the 5,000 meters and set a U.S. record of 14 minutes 59.99 seconds, more than six seconds better than the record of 15:06.53 set in 1985.
The former record-holder? Mary Decker Slaney, who until Plumer's race held American records in every distance from the 800 to the 10,000 meters.
Plumer, whose time of 14:59.99 ranks as the fifth-fastest women's 5,000 meters of all time, said the race was almost as tough as last year's Olympic trials.
"It was real hard, the pain side of it I mean," said Plumer by phone from Stockholm the next day. "Plus the conditions were tough. It was 75 degrees, there was bright sun on half of the field, and the other half was in the shadows, so it was tricky to see. There was a lot of bumping, too."
But the field, which also included Olympians Liz McColgan of Great Britain, Lynn Williams of Canada and Elly Van Hulst of the Netherlands, helped pull Plumer to a 20-second improvement over her previous best.
And the crowd, as are most on the European circuit, was large--about 35,000 according to Plumer--loud and supportive.
"With three laps to go, there were four of us left," said Plumer, 27.
"And with two laps to go, there were just three--me, the East German (Ullrich) and the Canadian (Williams). With one lap to go, somehow I had a burst of energy and then it was just me and (Ullrich).
"She passed me with 200 (meters) to go, I passed her back, she passed me and that was it for me. I was a little amazed I even made it to the finish line."
Many were surprised by Plumer's performance, considering her race schedule in the few weeks before the Stockholm race.
On June 24, Plumer won a 3,000-meter race in Birmingham, England, by outkicking McColgan.
The next day, her flight was delayed 10 hours, her clothes were stolen and she lost the lucky pearl earrings she had received for her 16th birthday.
Nevertheless, Plumer won another 3,000, at Villeneuve D'Asq, France.
On June 26, Plumer flew to Lausanne, Switzerland, to try to get into a meet--one in which the meet director, believing Plumer had little drawing power, had refused her entry. After much argument, Plumer was entered.
Plumer not only won the race, but outran 1988 Olympic gold medalist Paula Ivan of Romania for the victory. Plumer's time of 8:42.12 was the fastest in the world this year, although she has since dropped to sixth in that event.
"It felt great during the race," Plumer said. "I kept expecting that heavy fatigue to set in, but I felt fine. People kept asking me, 'Aren't you worried you're racing too much? Aren't you tired?' But the fatigue never came. All of a sudden it was me and Paula with a lap to go. I just went for it."
Tenacity has become a trademark for Plumer, who, despite spending the last three years in law school, has managed to run on a consistently high level. She won the 3,000 at The Athletics Congress championships in June by out-kicking former Missouri star Sabrina Dornhoefer in the final 20 meters. Only 0.18 seconds separated the two at the finish.
At last year's Olympic trials, it was Dornhoefer who battled Plumer to the finish. Dornhoefer collapsed 10 meters before the finish line, and like Plumer, had to be carried from the track.
Sunday, Plumer and Dornhoefer will meet again in the women's mile at the Jack in the Box Invitational at UCLA. The race, which starts at 5:40 p.m., will also include Suzy Favor, the three-time NCAA defending champion at 1,500 meters, and Cal State Northridge star Darcy Arreola.
Slaney, the U.S. record-holder in the event at 4:16.71, was originally scheduled to compete, but had to drop out because of a chronic Achilles' tendon injury. Plumer said she is disappointed that Slaney will not be competing Sunday.
"What I learned in Europe is I can compete with anyone," Plumer said. "I may not be able to beat them (every time), but I know I can really compete with them. And if I have a good day, I feel I can beat anyone in the world right now--including Mary. It's the first time I've ever felt that way."
According to Plumer's college coach, Stanford's Brooks Johnson, Plumer wasn't always the most courageous runner.
"During her freshman year, she was just going through the motions," Johnson said. "In that year, the qualifying standard for nationals in the 3,000 was 9:40. She ran 9:39.9 to qualify and 9:39.9 (actually, 9:42.02) at the nationals.
"I sat her down and said 'Look, I brought you here because you're a freshman. If all you're gonna do is run the minimum, then you're just running on the recreational level. I want to see how much you want out of yourself.' That was a turning point."
Plumer, chosen by TAC as the women's 3,000-meter entrant to represent the United States in the International Amateur Athletic Federation World Cup meet Sept. 8-10 in Barcelona, ran almost a minute faster--8:55.98--the next year.
Plumer grew up in Newport Beach, but moved in junior high with her father to Ridgeway, Colo., a tiny town on the western slopes of the Rockies.
In high school, Plumer competed in track and cross-country, placing third as a senior in the mile with a time of 5:10, and the two-mile, 11:20, in the Colorado state meet.
But at about the same time, about 1,000 miles west, Polly Plumer was making national news at University High.
In 1982, Polly, who because of persistent injuries is now in semi-retirement at 24, set the current national record for the high school girls' 1,600 meters--4:35.24.
Even when PattiSue went to Stanford, where she became a three-time All-American in track, placing second in the 3,000 meters for three consecutive years, people still confused her with her sister.
"She was always Polly Sue Plumer to some people," Johnson said. "I can remember her running a race in L.A. and San Diego . . . through the whole race they announced her as Polly Sue Plumer.
"She was clearly under her sister's shadow. There wasn't any sibling rivalry, but PattiSue would say, 'If I'm working my . . . off, the least they could do is get my name right.' "
An understandable request--perhaps now more than ever.