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When the girl has gone, Maren sighs. "Female solidarity, isn't it heartening?" she says.
Maren Seidler is the best female shotputter in American history. At 27, she has won 15 national titles, indoors and out, and this past summer raised her own national record five times, starting at 56'7". Yet for most Americans the presence of this large and powerful woman in their midst is less cause for praise than curiosity. Besides giggly displays in restaurants, people stop and gape at Seidler on the street (she knows because sometimes she spins to catch them in mid-gawk). Distilled, the most polite of their questions have to do with how a balanced and intelligent girl ever came to take up shotputting.
There is sense to such a question, because even a male athlete is expected to chalk up success, to define himself through whatever he loves to do, before about half the people he knows stop telling him to quit wasting his time. So for a female beginner in an event calling for muscle, and mass, and grunting, for God's sake, it must take a wondrous internal sureness to begin and persist and improve.
Or it takes a guide. Walt Seidler is 6'9" and 265 pounds. When his two daughters—Maren, who is named after her maternal grandmother, and Carol, who now stands 6'3½"—were born a year and a half apart in Brooklyn, he soon knew they would be tall. "I did a work-up based on the theory that a baby girl at 18 months will measure one-half her adult height. They both seemed sure to make six feet. Maren got there before she was 13. I knew the world was cruel, that anyone who is different will be teased, so I did my best to counteract that at home. Height was something to be proud of."
Walt Seidler encouraged his daughters to take up athletics to prove that length of limb has its advantages. Both girls swam, but Carol soon lost interest in athletics. "Carol is a natural athlete, but competition wasn't her bag. With Maren it took more work. And I sort of knew, with that swimming thing you kind of lost yourself in the pool. So one day in 1965 when Maren was 13, I said, 'You see this iron ball? I think with this you'll see all the countries of the world.' "
With her father as her coach, Maren Seidler broke the 12-13 age-group record for the six-pound shot by six feet in her first meet, putting 46'6". Three years later she was in the Olympics, finishing 11th at Mexico City. "It all came so easily," she says now. "The rewards were nice, the travel, the friendships. It wasn't the satisfaction of doing it. It was what it got me." Rewards accrue to 11th-placers as well as to champions, so Seidler was moved to go on, but not too far up. "I was told I had great potential," she says, "but I had no direction. There were no real women's programs at colleges in 1969. Some California schools asked me to come, but I like Boston, so I went to Tufts, even though it had no women's track team."
Seidler, who majored in anthropology, turned to the shot only occasionally—a month or two before the national championships—and went on accumulating U.S.A. sweat suits and whirlwind visits to Leningrad, Paris, Tokyo and Dakar. In 1968 she won the shotput at the AAU championship by throwing 50'3¾". At that time the world record of 61'3" was held by Nadyezhda Chizhova of the Soviet Union. Ten years later, when the world record, held by Czechoslovakia's Helena Fibingerova, was 73'2¾", Seidler had only reached 56'7", a relative loss of 4'8½". Her plight—winning year after year in the U.S., yet losing year after year by ever greater margins to Eastern Europeans—reflected the contrast between the two regions' social and scientific views of women.
"People's ideas about femininity crystallize when they're faced with the issue of lady shotputters," Seidler says.
Seidler remembers her childhood much as her father does, believing that he prepared her to let society's disparagement slide from her back. "I'm always asked for horror stories," she says. "Either I'm not easily shocked or I don't have any. People always say, 'You seem so happy with yourself,' as if I'm supposed to be a tormented individual, but I've always been comfortable being big. I've had to spend time talking about it way out of proportion to my concern about it, because so many people are interested in that aspect."