Leslie Lewis might be getting a late start on an Olympic dream, but the marathon runner isn't letting age or lack of experience slow her down.
The 35-year-old flight attendant from Torrance began running five years ago but has developed quickly and is making a name for herself among America's finest runners.
In October of 1989, Lewis' hard work paid off with a first-place finish at the Athens Peace Marathon in Greece. Her time of 2 hours, 37 minutes, 42 seconds set a course record and earned her an invitation to represent the United States in the Goodwill Games in Seattle next month.
"The Athens course was a lot like Palos Verdes Drive--it rolled a lot," Lewis said. "But it was sort of spiritual for me. Spiridon Loues was the first athlete to win the Olympic marathon, which was along the course that I ran. I felt like there was someone helping me along the whole way. I know that sounds a little bit corny, but I believe that if you have a spirit--believe in something--then it comes true.
The Athens finish gave Lewis a No. 18-ranking among female marathon runners in the United States.
"People told me that running the Athens Marathon was like running at 12 noon down Hawthorne Boulevard--behind a bus. And that's literally the way it was," Lewis said.
"The last 10-K was down the middle of a street, cars passing right and left. I thought I was going to get hit by a car," she said, jokingly.
Her good nature and healthy sense of humor surface through her perpetual smile. Her 105-pound frame make her appear taller than 5-foot-7.
"I started running when I was 30--never had any training," Lewis said. "I can see myself getting better. I think there's a place for us women who are starting a little later in life."
Before Lewis took up racing, she would tag along with friends to 10-K runs to hold their sweat suits and provide encouragement. After three months as a spectator, Lewis decided to join the running world.
"I remember in my first race I wore full sweats, two T-shirts and a sweat shirt," she said. "I had long hair and I think I even had makeup on. At the time I thought I was quite fashionable."
Lewis has come a long way since that first race down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. She quickly learned the difference between fashion and dressing for competition. But these are the little things Lewis has had to figure out for herself.
"I try a lot of different things," she said. "You listen to people, things go in one ear and stick, or out the other ear. You have to put together a plan for yourself.
"What works for one athlete doesn't necessarily work for another. I run 60-70 miles a week. Joanie Benoit (Samuelson) and others run about 100-120 miles a week."
In the summer of 1984, about a year before Lewis got into running, Samuelson won the first Olympic marathon for women in the Los Angeles Games. Samuelson, who was 27 when she won the gold medal, finished in 2:24.52. Portugal's Rosa Mota took home the gold in the 1988 Seoul Games with a time of 2:25.40. She was 30. The top-ranked women's marathon runner last year was Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen, who was 33.
Lewis, a non-athlete before taking up aerobics in 1983, is a newcomer to a highly competitive sport. Lewis' age isn't viewed as a big drawback, but her lack of experience might be.
Experience is what Lewis has missed by not running in high school or college. Other runners are aware of such things as their pace and trust it from beginning to end. Lewis is learning to save energy for the last part of the race by trusting a slower start. Pace can be as important to marathon runners as arm mechanics are to a fastball pitcher.
"I sometimes wish I had had more formalized training, but maybe I wouldn't have accelerated the way I have now," Lewis said.
Lewis' acceleration has certainly been fast and furious. In 1985, Lewis finished 12th in the Honolulu Marathon in 3:04.31 Four months later, she improved her time by five minutes (2:59.06) in the Boston Marathon, where she finished 32nd. Almost two years after Boston, she entered the Los Angeles Marathon and finished 18th in 2:53.38.
Her impressive string of improvements was broken at the New York Marathon in November of 1988 when she finished at 2:57.23.
"After the New York Marathon, I said to myself, 'Maybe I'm not a marathon runner.' I was really disappointed and discouraged with that finish, so I started concentrating more on 10-K's."
Lewis' game plan paid off. In 1989, Lewis recorded personal records in the 5-K (16:40), 8-K (27:10), 10-K (34:13), 15-K (52:26), half-marathon (1:15.55) and marathon (2:37.42).
"Now running is a priority in my life," Lewis said. "It's a vocation instead of a hobby."
She gives credit for her accomplishments to coach Thom Lacie and message therapist Jeannie Perricelli. Lacie, owner of two Marathom's fitness stores in San Pedro and Rolling Hills Estates, said that Lewis still has much to learn about running but that her potential seems endless.
"She made incredible headway last year, but she still has a lot to learn about pacing herself; she'll be the first to admit to you that she starts too fast," Lacie said. "But when she gets to where she can better handle that, I think she's really going to surprise some people."
Lacie, 38, a track and field coach at San Pedro High, met Lewis five years ago when she frequented his store to buy aerobic wear. A 20-year runner, Lacie has been providing pointers to Lewis twice a week for about three years.
"A year ago we were doing repeats and half-repeats and she couldn't break a 6-minute pace," he said. "Then all of the sudden--like overnight--she was running a 5:30, 5:40 pace. Other runners work for years on that and never make that kind of pace."
Perricelli, who has been treating Lewis for three years, agrees that the best of Lewis is yet to come.
"Leslie hasn't even hit her power source yet," Perricelli said. "She's fresh, she's had no injuries, no scar tissue; she hasn't been sculptured yet."
Perricelli, 45, who is also a flight attendant for American Airlines, works with Lewis once a week for two hours. He also works with her for 30 minutes before a race, if possible.
Lewis grew up in Redondo Beach until she was 8. For the next 10 years, she lived with her mother and sister in Palo Alto, where she attended a private prep school. Two years after graduating from USC in 1977, the psychology major became a flight attendant. She trains as much as her schedule at American Airlines can accommodate. That can mean running on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, in New York's Central Park or along the Charles River in Boston during a layover.
"I've done more exploring and adventuring with my running than I have with my flying career," she said. "If it's early enough when I get in on a layover, I'll go for a run through the city and find out where everything is; then I go back, get my friends and we'll go out on the town."
Helen Lacie Hegge, 34, Marathom's manager and Lewis' good friend, is afraid that her profession will end up hurting her in the long run.
"She doesn't get to train as consistently as so many other women do because her schedule is so crazy, but she gets by on a whole lot less," Hegge said. "That's what amazes me most."
Lacie said: "She needs to learn to get into a life of running, to run distance all year round instead of training and racing from time to time.
"She will have to learn to work around her profession, or change professions."
Lewis' first shot at qualifying for the Olympic trials will be in the Goodwill Games on July 22 at the University of Washington's Huskie Stadium. To qualify, she will need a time of 2:45.00 or less. If she fails to make that time, she can qualify at any marathon sanctioned by The Athletic Congress before the Olympic trials at Long Beach in February, 1992.
"I have no doubt that she'll qualify for the trials, but the marathon runners will be coming out of the woodwork over the next two years," Lacie said. "She'll definitely be in the running."
Hegge, a runner herself who puts in 25 to 30 miles a week, thinks that Lewis is almost oblivious to her talent and accomplishments.
"I think the whole thing really surprises her," Hegge said. "I don't think she ever expected to do this well.
"She genuinely doesn't know what she is capable of and just goes from day to day."
Qualifying for the trials doesn't seem to obsess Lewis, but this high flyer is the first to say that "the sky is the limit."
"It is wonderful to keep improving," Lewis said. "I just want to do the best I can and share it with others.
"Seize the day--that's my motto."