She looks like the nerdy waif who sat next to you in seventh grade, a tiny person with stringy blond hair and small, wonkish eyeglasses. In reality, 5'2�", 93-pound Romanian Gabriela Szabo is a 24-year-old woman, and in a footrace she will cut your heart out with the most devastating finish in the sport. Four years ago Szabo earned a silver medal in the 1,500 meters. Since then she has been the most consistent woman in the world at distances from 1,500 through 5,000. She comes to Sydney as a solid favorite in the 5,000 and a threat to double five days later in the 1,500, which would enable her to take home a medal haul that weighs almost as much as she does.
She was even smaller when, as a 13-year-old schoolgirl in her Transylvanian hometown of Bistrita, she ran in an informal 600-meter race and won by a huge margin. "My school sports teacher said to me after the race, 'Please come back tomorrow,' " recalls Szabo. Two summers later Szabo won the European junior 3,000 title championship. Three years after that she had a Nike contract, an agent and a full-time track career. "It is what I had dreamed of every time I went out running," says Szabo.
In nearly all her victories Szabo hangs doggedly with the front-runners and then destroys them in the final 400. "I have always been fast at the end," she says. That kick has given her a good life, albeit a peripatetic one. She married her coach, Zsolt Gy�ngy�ssy, last fall, and they spend less than two months each year in Romania. The rest of the time is spent training in places as disparate as the Netherlands and South Africa and traveling to meets around the world, all the while improving her English by watching CNN and reading Jane Austen. "My home is in my suitcase," she says.
No problem, as long as she leaves room in it for a little gold.