Not Quite a Forgotten Woman
“I don’t care about Michael Johnson,” said Quincy Watts, the 1992 Barcelona gold medalist and Valley guy, after being outrun by Johnson in the 400 meters at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials here Wednesday night. “I have two gold medals. Ask me about Carl Lewis. Ask me about Valerie Brisco. Ask me about somebody who’s done it.”
Yeah. About time somebody asked about Valerie.
With all this gab about Michael Johnson endeavoring to become the “first” to win both the 200 and 400 at the same Olympics, too many people keep neglecting to add the word man. Back when she was Valerie Brisco-Hooks, the gold medals for the 200 and 400--plus the 1,600-meter relay--at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics went to a woman who made history while Johnson was still in school, studying it.
“I know what he means,” Brisco said on the phone from her Torrance home, after Watts’ comment was relayed to her. “It’s best not to talk about something unless you’ve really done it.”
So, be like Mike?
No. Michael, pal, be like Val.
She’s already done it and has the medals to prove it, although one of Brisco’s golds was stolen on a trip to Berlin, necessitating that she apply for a replacement.
Taxing her body to the max, Valerie took the 200 and 400 in Olympic record times as she swirled through the Coliseum. Eight years later, those exact times won gold medals--for two other women--at Barcelona, 21.81 seconds in the shorter race, 48.83 in the longer.
Could she run that way today?
“Oh, please,” said Brisco, who turns 36 next month. “My body aches every morning just thinking about it.”
Now someone who devotes much of her time and energy to the Special Olympics and to motherhood, Brisco once brought her toddler to the track to watch her run. Time flies, and on Wednesday she attended son Alvin’s eighth-grade graduation.
Brisco also just got back from Atlantic City, N.J., where at a “Sports Legends” banquet she mingled with the likes of Bob Hayes, Billy Mills, Wyomia Tyus, Al Oerter, Michael Spinks, Nadia Comaneci and other Olympians of old.
“Oh, and that guy who flopped. Fosbury? He was there,” she said, meaning Dick Fosbury, the high jumper with the revolutionary technique.
“There was a lot of history in that room. We watched film of the way things used to be, like when there was sawdust in the pole-vault pit. I got to meet a lot of the people I had never met. Like Nadia Comaneci? Forget about it. The woman was bad. The things she could do with that tiny little body, that girl was incredible.”
Given the chance, Comaneci would surely say the feeling was mutual.
Brisco, much like Johnson today, had to endure extraordinarily strenuous training sessions with her coach, Bob Kersee, as well as overlapping scheduling conflicts to do what she did. It just didn’t seem so uncommon then.
“No, because I did it in high school. The one, the two and the four. So I wasn’t afraid of it.
“The hard part was being out there all day. You’d be out there in the morning and still out there 7 at night. Running the 200 at the Olympics was the most difficult of all. I was fatigued, emotionally drained, my back was having spasms--and then Bobby couldn’t be there, just when I needed him most.”
Kersee, after having regular access to his athlete, was denied entry to the track by a volunteer worker who didn’t recognize him and wouldn’t yield without being shown a proper credential. That left Brisco preparing for the biggest race of her life on her own.
“I just had to improvise,” she said, “and grit it out.”
Not only did she win twice, but Brisco won a relay gold with Lillie Leatherwood, Sherri Howard and Chandra Cheeseborough. She added a silver medal in that same event at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, in a relay anchored by Florence Griffith-Joyner.
That was plenty for one career. Track and field was “more about competition and camaraderie in those days, but it’s a business now,” Brisco says. “Corporations are behind it now. People are more serious. It’s their life. For me, running has always been a means to an end.”
So, she doesn’t run now?
“Oh, please,” Brisco said. “I don’t even jog. I’m old, honey.”