Debbie Heald will carry the Olympic torch Tuesday. Once, she expected to carry an Olympic medal.
Once, Debbie Heald set the world record. She was 16, a junior at Neff High in La Mirada in her first international meet and she beat the women from the Soviet Union, bigger, stronger, older, silent women who scared her. Until she ran past them.
Now, Heald runs past the neighborhood dogs who shatter the night silence with their noisy greeting. She knows the police who patrol the streets of Norwalk in the middle of the night. They will flash their lights at Heald or pull over to say hello when Heald runs and walks the streets from 2 a.m. until 3 or 4, depending on how her sore hip feels. On weekends, Heald runs at 5:30. Her goal is to stay away from trouble, to let the drunks from the bars get home.
Her goal once was to conquer the world with her track shoes and her talent. Now, the men on the backs of the garbage trucks wave. Street cleaners call out her name. Heald will point to a house and say that the men who live there will sometimes party late and throw their empty beer bottles at her as she moves by.
"People," Heald says. "I just don't understand them."
Heald is 46. When Heald runs, she has a long, sure stride. Her hips are balanced, her feet touch the ground lightly.
In the quiet nights, as she runs or walks for hours and miles, 12 to 15 each evening, Heald is alone with her thoughts and sometimes she can't help but think about how her life was supposed to be.
Heald lives in a small apartment off Firestone Boulevard, a busy street filled with car dealerships, fast food restaurants and, sometimes, trouble. She has a roommate and a position that's part-time job and part-time volunteer at the Norwalk-La Mirada adult education department.
Her co-workers love Heald, who has a degree in education from Cal State Fullerton and once had plans to be a teacher and coach like her mentor, her hero, her coach, her second father, Roy Mason. She was going to become a teacher after she had run in the Olympics, maybe in a couple of world championships, surely after she had won some gold medals in her race, the race, the 1,500-meter run.
Instead, Heald will carry the Olympic torch when it arrives in Los Angeles on its nationwide tour in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City. Heald will pick up the torch at the Coliseum at 3:15 p.m. She will wear a USA team-issued sweat suit. It came with a T-shirt and baseball cap and, the day the gear arrived, Heald cried. Nothing in her life will mean as much to Heald as the three-quarters of a mile she will run with the torch.
Her family and her friends are taking off work. Mason is driving 12 hours from Ukiah. This will be, truly, an Olympic moment in a way to make us realize what the Olympics are supposed to mean.
Does the name Debbie Heald ring a bell? Does it tickle your memory? You've heard that name before, haven't you?
If you are a fan of track and field, you probably have.
On March 17, 1972, Heald, 16, set the world indoor mile record at the Richmond Coliseum in a dual meet against a powerful Soviet Union team. This was in the middle of the Cold War. The Soviet women were dominant. The U.S. team was made up mostly of teenagers. Heald's victory was as stunning as was the fact the U.S. women won.
In a photo in Sports Illustrated, Heald is crossing the finish line with her hands raised, palms forward and a big smile filled with joy and astonishment. Heald won the race in 4 minutes 38.5 seconds. Some 30 years later, it still stands as the high school indoor record.
It was Heald's first international meet. Also in the race were Doris Brown, Heald's 27-year-old hero and then the mile record holder; five-time world cross-country champion Tamara Pangelova, who had set the world indoor record the week before in the European Championships, and Ludmila Braghina, who would win Olympic gold later in the year. All were at least 10 years older than Heald.
Heald ran in shoes held together by tape because she couldn't afford new ones. She called home to Mason, her coach, crying every day because she was homesick and because the U.S. national coaches wanted her to train differently from what Mason had asked. Her previous best time had been 4:47. Her hope had been to run 4:44 or maybe 4:42. Her "outside dream," as she called it, was to hit 4:40.
When Heald got home the next day, the world had noticed. Banners were up in her neighborhood. Shoe companies began mailing gear.
"I ran in a meet in Long Beach the next week," Heald says, "and I thought I was the coolest thing. I was walking around in all my new stuff."
In those days there wasn't much in the way of college scholarships, but a girl with Heald's talent was certainly noticed and nurtured. Mason had become her teacher in fourth grade. Heald's father had recently died and her mother, Ernestine, had asked that Debbie be assigned to a male teacher.
Mason, a runner, started a track team at the grade school. Debbie wasn't fast but she was persistent. "All of a sudden," Mason says, "I was noticing that Debbie's name was at the top of best times list for all the longer races."
Heald slowly became Mason's star runner and almost an adopted daughter. She missed the 1976 Olympics when stress fractures kept her out of the U.S. trials but there was no reason to think that, in 1980, Heald wouldn't be a prime 1,500 candidate.
When Heald graduated from high school, she went to Fullerton on a need-based scholarship and Mason, who had become coach at Bellflower High, moved to Ukiah, wanting a less hectic life for his family. His track club, the La Mirada Meteors, was disbanded but Debbie had begun training at the Los Angeles Track Club under Coach Lazlo Tabori.
For several years Mason and Heald lost touch. Mason would hear of Heald, how she had moved to Berkeley to run for a Nike team and train at California.
"In June of 1980," Mason says, "I got a phone call from one of my former runners telling me that Debbie had attempted suicide and was confined to the psychiatric ward at Cedars-Sinai, diagnosed with schizophrenia. I was stunned. As soon as I could, about a week later, I drove to Los Angeles. What I saw, I couldn't believe."
What he saw wasn't his strong, long-legged, bubbly young star. What Mason saw was a woman with a vacant stare who was curled up in a ball. What he didn't know, Mason would soon find out.
"When I got to Berkeley," Heald says, "things started to happen and I didn't even know it. I was acting weird but I didn't know that. I guess I was hearing voices but I didn't know it. My roommates did. I would disappear for a couple of days and I didn't know it and didn't remember where I was."
Heald tried to keep running, to run away from whatever it was that was happening. But she couldn't and finally, in 1980 when she was 24 and should have been in her prime, a roommate called Heald's family. Heald's mother and two brothers drove to Berkeley and took Heald to Cedars-Sinai. She didn't leave the hospital for two years and then only because her insurance, which had come through her association with Nike, ran out.
For the next 16 years, Heald's life was a series of hospitalizations followed by release followed by a suicide attempt or days of disappearance or wandering followed by readmittance to the hospital. She held odd jobs--as a delivery person, as an office worker, whatever she could find.
"I'd find an apartment and start my life and then it would happen again," Heald says. "I could always tell somewhere inside. I'd know things were going bad again."
Whenever she could, Heald would run. Between hospital stays, Heald would try to join a track club.
"I would run but I couldn't follow the sport," Heald says. "It hurt too much. I'd see the people I used to run against and beat, Ruth Wysocki and Francie Larrieu, and I couldn't stand it."
All this time, Mason stayed in Heald's corner. He would visit a couple of times a month. He would take her from the hospital for lunch or a movie. He would help her find jobs or an apartment.
In 1996, Heald was put on a medication that has kept her disease at arm's length. Tom Flood, a counselor at the Norwalk-La Mirada adult school, and a former runner and coach who knew Mason and Heald, stepped in. He got Heald the job at the school. "I tell you," Flood says, "Debbie runs this office."
And since 1996, Heald has not been in the hospital. But the medication caused Heald to gain weight. "I couldn't stand that," she says. Thus started her middle-of-the-night runs. The medication makes it impossible for her to drive, so Heald takes the bus to work.
Every summer she visits Mason and his family in Ukiah for a week or two. Her mother and stepfather live in Banning. Her brother Mike lives in West Hollywood. Her brother Dana lives in Yorba Linda with her niece and nephew.
When Mason saw an ad in a magazine with an application to carry the torch, he thought of Debbie. Debbie said Mason could fill out the application. "But I never thought I'd be accepted," Heald says. "I was at Roy's place this summer when I got the letter I was picked."
Mason, 70, says he expects to cry Tuesday. Flood is taking the afternoon off from work and driving to the Coliseum with four other fans of Heald's.
"I used to be sad about what happened to me and how I never got to run in the Olympics," Heald says. "But I have gotten over that. I have my life and on Tuesday I think I'll be the happiest person you can imagine."
There certainly will be many grand Olympic moments to come this winter. No Olympic performance will be as meaningful as one 46-year-old woman running briefly but with hope, holding high a torch and holding dear the memories of a world record.
The record is only a memory. But the running, that she'll have always.
Diane Pucin can be reached at email@example.com.
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Torch to Pass Through Southland
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Passing the Torch
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