It has taken years, but Connie Price-Smith has gotten used to it. No longer does she feel all eyes upon her, people whispering behind her back. Her self-consciousness came from neither the widely held belief that all world-class throwers take drugs nor the fact that she's a black woman married to a white man. Those were minor headaches. What troubled her was that she stands 6'3" and weighs 212 pounds, virtually all of it muscle. In this small-minded world, doting as it does on thin women, her size has brought her acute discomfort.
"It really was traumatic for me being the tallest girl in class," says Price-Smith, who stood 6 feet tall in eighth grade. "Especially in high school. You want to fit in and be like everyone else, but you're bigger than the guys. I didn't really want to be an athlete. Now I like myself, and I'm proud of what I do."
With good reason. At 36 and nearing the end of her career, Price-Smith is probably the best woman thrower the U.S. has ever had. She has won 20 national titles in the shot and discus, indoors and out. Her bests in the shot (64'3¾") and discus (212'8") rank her second and fifth, respectively, on the alltime U.S. lists. Moreover, she is a threat to medal at every major championship, something no U.S. woman has been for years. With the exception of the boycott-weakened Los Angeles Games of 1984, the only post-World War II Olympics at which the U.S. has won a medal in the women's shot or discus were those of 1960, when Earlene Brown won the bronze in the shot in Rome. Since then the women's throws have been dominated by Eastern European countries, due in no small part to their formerly state-supported doping programs.
Price-Smith put an end to that streak of U.S. futility in 1995 when she won the silver medal at the world indoor championships in Barcelona. At the Atlanta Olympics she placed fifth in the shot—the best finish by a U.S. putter since Brown-though her husband and coach, John Smith, believes she would have medaled but for the bad luck of her participation in an ill-timed fire drill, which aggravated soreness in her left knee.
Smith is his wife's biggest fan, so it's surprising to hear him suggest that her recent success is due not so much to her own steady improvement as to the fact that drug testing, while far from perfect, is working—offering both a strong deterrent and weeding out the users. Indeed, Price-Smith's world-championship silver was a bronze until a postcompetition drug test revealed that Larisa Peleshenko of Russia, who had finished first, had tested positive for steroids.
"We used to struggle to make a final," says Smith. "Now, if Connie throws well, she gets a medal. That's kept her in the sport. If [the level of drug use] had stayed where it was in 1988, she would have gotten out."
What a loss that would have been. Not only is Price-Smith one of the few top athletes about whom there seem to be no drug-use rumors—indeed, other throwers go out of their way to volunteer that she is clean—but she is also a model of sportsmanship and generosity, a kind of den mother to a talented trio of young U.S. throwers: Tressa Thompson, Teri Tunks and Valeyta Althouse. Price-Smith has given up free trips to places such as New Zealand to give younger throwers crucial international experience. "It's hard to imagine track and field without Connie around," says her longtime pal, hammer thrower Lance Deal. "She's the peacemaker. She has nothing bad to say about anybody."
Price-Smith grew up in St. Charles, Mo., just west of St. Louis, where her late father, James Price, worked first in a brick factory and then as a mechanic for Ford. He was not a large man, John Smith says, but "even at 90 he still had big Popeye arms. And the women on his side of the family are huge." At St. Charles High, Connie successfully petitioned the school board to allow her to play four sports, which she did with impressive success, winning two state titles in the shot; high jumping 5'11"; running 100 yards in 11.2 seconds; and starring on the basketball, softball and volleyball teams.
She attended Southern Illinois on a basketball scholarship, playing center with a kind of Gulliver-among-the-Lilliputians diffidence. "She was so much bigger and stronger than anyone we played, so she held back," says her former coach Cindy Scott. "She didn't want to hurt anybody." In her junior year, 1982-83, she led the team to a 22-11 record and finished third in the nation in field-goal percentage (.650). She thought about playing pro ball in Italy, but instead, with the encouragement of her husband-to-be, an All-America shot-putter at Southern Illinois who became her coach in 1985, she took up the shot once more.
"After watching her throw for three days, I went and got her a passport," Smith says. "I told myself, If she's not national champion in two years, I quit."