SI Vault
Sarah Pileggi
September 21, 1981
The best woman sprinter in the world is a sylph named Evelyn Ashford, who has come to maturity and greatness after enduring a season of despair
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September 21, 1981

The Lady Vanquishes

The best woman sprinter in the world is a sylph named Evelyn Ashford, who has come to maturity and greatness after enduring a season of despair

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Evelyn rolled her eyes and ignored him. "I hate to say I want to run a world record because I think it will jinx me," she said. "People will expect it, and it won't come, and then people will say, 'She doesn't know what she's talking about.' "

As it turned out, she didn't set any records either before World Cup III or in winning both the 100 and 200 in Rome. And at dinner after the meet she was subdued despite her triumph. "I wanted a world record this season," she said. A fellow runner who knows her well believes she won't be satisfied with herself until she accomplishes one or both of two goals: an Olympic gold medal or a world record.

Ashford isn't a glib conversationalist and she considers carefully what few things she says. Her answers to questions are often delivered in sections with lengthy pauses between them, as if she is hoping nobody will notice that she has stopped talking. The questioner who isn't willing to wait will never find out what she has on her mind, because if the questioner doesn't pursue the subject, the chances are neither will Evelyn. On one subject, however, Ashford is downright voluble.

"Drugs. It's the thing to do right now," she says. "I've heard people say that's why I run so fast. 'She must be on drugs, she must be on steroids.' People really believe that in order to do well you have to be taking something. And I don't understand that. I really don't. Damn! It does make you mad. American women athletes are so psyched out about what the East Germans are doing, what the Russians are doing. You hear it all the time: 'They're all on steroids, they're all on drugs.' I think that's a lot of crap. That's just those people's excuse for not running well. It's a copout. You don't know what you can do, and with drugs you'll never find out. I believe in women, I believe in myself, I believe in my body. I believe I can run faster not using drugs than people using drugs because that's the way I was put here."

Pointing to her head, she continues, "I fully believe it's here, this is where it is, and I proved that to myself in 1979. I told myself I wanted to do it and I was willing to work for it—and it came about."

Connolly, who came to coaching from the pentathlon, where steroids were in use long before they reached the sprints, feels the same way. She reached a point in her own athletic career when she had to decide whether to take steroids to remain competitive. She chose to retire.

"Coaches say to young, impressionable girls, this is what you need if you want to do what you want to do," Connolly says. "A woman taking steroids is a freak. She grows hair, she stops menstruating, et cetera. What we, Evelyn and I, want to prove is that a normal, natural woman who isn't a freak can be the best. Evelyn has to win. My daughter, who is three, is going to be big. She's already twice the size of the other children her age. Obviously she's going to be an athlete of some kind. For my daughter's sake, Evelyn has to win."

The burden of responsibility Evelyn Ashford has chosen to carry is extraordinary, but she has made herself equal to it. The story of her determination can be read in the muscles of her thighs, her buttocks and her back.

She is justifiably proud of those muscles. They are spectacular-looking enough that recently she was asked to pose for the cover of a bodybuilding magazine, an honor she declined. "I don't want to be around people who even look at drugs," she says. More important, however, is the fact that those muscles are the product of her own hard work, nothing else. Whatever happens now—however fast she runs and however many world records or gold medals she accumulates—she intends to explore her talents fully. And that, after all, is an athlete's true reward.

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