"The life was abnormal, but I wasn't," she says. "I was happy. I just had this unusual existence in the track and field bubble, and it went on and on, and I won and won, and that was fine." She defined herself by the act of snapping to full alertness, full force, when the race demanded. "I'm very good at focus," she says, suddenly with flint in her tone. "When I hone in, not a whole lot gets in the way."
She married sprinter Mark Lutz in 1976. "We were two people bouncing around Europe who got married without finding out we were totally different," she says. They divorced in 1978. Larrieu Smith kept her focus, placing fourth in the 1979 World Cup 1,500. This was not a woman easily unhinged by domestic turmoil. No, the challenge of her life had to come from where she lived, from the track itself, from being beaten, from Mary Decker.
In 1973 Larrieu Smith had seen the then 14-year-old Decker blossom into the U.S.'s best 800-meter runner and shuddered at the prodigy's bounding speed. "She was the only runner I ever feared," says Larrieu Smith. "I was glad she wasn't in my event. Yet."
Injuries kept Decker at bay until the late '70s, and Larrieu Smith held her off to win the 1979 TAC 1,500. "But when she came on, it was like gangbusters," says Larrieu Smith. "She wiped out all my records, and I didn't respond too well." By 1982 her rival, now Mary Decker Slaney, would hold seven world records and all 10 American records from 800 through 10,000 meters.
"Instead of taking Mary as a challenge, I freaked out," says Larrieu Smith. "I stopped believing in myself and started getting beaten by people I didn't even know. I was near 30 and totally intimidated."
In 1980 she married the steady, supportive Jimmy Smith, now a professor of exercise physiology, and moved to Dallas, but she ran no better. In 1982 she started working with the calm, restraining Vaughan, now of Baylor's Tom Landry Sports Medicine and Research Center, but ran no better. She placed only fifth in the 1984 Olympic trials 3,000.
"Failing to make the team for L.A. was what it took to make me finally absorb what Robert taught," she says. Vaughan's lessons were not unfamiliar ones. Larrieu Smith had learned them at 16, and so it is galling to her now that she ever lost her way. "He taught that life goes on, that you shouldn't take a loss personally, that you shouldn't worry about what others do, that you should run your own race...." she says. "God, I'm embarrassed at what a long time it took me to come back."
"It must be a shock for people who have won all their lives to be beaten," says Vaughan. "I think Francie's reaction is common to many athletes." It's just that most of them go through it in high school.
Larrieu Smith began running road races. "I was thinking, O.K., career's ending, let's get a few bucks on the road," she says.
She got a new life. In June 1985 she dueled world-record holder Grete Waitz over 10,000 meters in New York's Central Park. "Being in New York, running in front of the media guys who remembered all those races from the days in the Garden, it did a lot," says Larrieu Smith. She whipped Waitz with a strong last mile and was confirmed in her move to the longer distances.