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Her face is as pretty as a child's. The bone structure that supports her 115 pounds is delicate to the point of fragility. Her public demeanor is what used to be called ladylike. She is graceful, gentle, modest and soft-spoken. Even when she runs, no unseemly haste is apparent in her movements. She appears less to run than to flow fast. The ferocious intensity shows only in the results. Evelyn Ashford was the first woman to run both the 100 meters in less than II seconds (an American-record 10.90) and the 200 in less than 22 seconds (an American-record 21.83). In 1979, at World Cup II in Montreal, she beat the East German world-record holders in the 100 and 200. And two weeks ago at World Cup III in Rome she won the same two events and was the meet's only double winner.
Although Ashford is now the preeminent woman sprinter in the world, her ascension has not been a smooth one. In 1980, having taken more than a year off from her studies at UCLA and with months of heavy stamina and weight training behind her, Ashford was ready for the Moscow Olympics, ready to win one, two, maybe even three or four gold medals, ready to be the first American woman sprinter since the days of Wilma Rudolph, Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus to climb to the top step of the victory stand and ever after be an inspiration to young athletes, just as Rudolph and Tyus had been to her. Afterward, according to the script, she might think of retiring, of going back to school, having babies, owning a dress shop someday and never again experiencing the pressure of competing at the world-class level.
But that script was shelved. Because of the intensity of her concentration, Ashford was among the last to accept that there would be no Olympics for the U.S. in 1980. She refused to believe it. When the fact finally became inescapable, her world came tumbling around her ears. She had endured more than a year of total dedication, of training twice a day, of lifting weights three nights a week, of worrying about how to pay a parking ticket—not to mention the rent—without having her spirit dented, but the boycott broke her. "I guess the best way to describe it was I felt as if my soul was ripped out of me," she says.
She continued to train, listlessly, for a while. She went to three meets in Japan just to have something to do. But in May, while running the 100 in the Pepsi meet at UCLA, she pulled her right hamstring and that was the end of her Olympic year. The devastation was complete. Shock gave way to depression. She cried "every 15 minutes," according to her husband, Ray Washington.
In August, Evelyn and Ray decided to drive from Los Angeles to Detroit, Ray's hometown, for a family reunion, and then on to Miami to see Evelyn's parents. As they crossed the country, Evelyn thought about the past and the future, goals and disappointments, and where she was going next. "While we were driving I was thinking, 'Maybe it was supposed to happen like this, maybe it was fate.' I thought about quitting and not running again."
"Evelyn had more to lose than most people because she had a real clear shot at winning a gold," says Pat Winslow Connolly, a former Olympic pentathlete, second wife of Harold Connolly, the 1956 Olympic hammer-throw champion, and Ashford's coach at UCLA and since. "It wasn't like the average person who was just hoping to make the team. Evelyn had a chance to do more than Edwin Moses, more than [Renaldo] Nehemiah. She had a chance at two gold medals for sure, and two more in the relays if things went well. So it was just all the more devastating."
By last September, though, when Evelyn and Ray returned to Los Angeles, she was ready to start over, but this time with a different focus. She would run again, but never again would she give over her whole life to running. She would go back to school, but not to UCLA, where she had been a vaguely dissatisfied sociology major. Rather she would go to Cal State-Los Angeles on the other side of town, where she could try her hand at the subjects that really interested her—design and textiles. She would approach each year as it arrived. She would think about the 1984 Olympics in 1984. Never again would her physical and mental well-being depend on the whim of a politician or anyone else.
"We decided, Pat, Ray and me, that we would go ahead and train for this year to see what would happen. We decided we might as well, we had nothing else to do. Not because I had any love for the sport at that time. At that time I still didn't care about anything. I guess it took me about two months to really start feeling something again, to feel alive again."
The first meet of the 1981 indoor season for Ashford was the Albuquerque Invitational. When she arrived at the Albuquerque airport, her starting time was only an hour away and no one was there to meet her. Her only thoughts were of getting to Tingley Coliseum. Once there she ran the fastest 60-yard dash of her life, a 6:65, which broke "Chandra Cheeseborough's two-year-old world indoor record.
"That was when I started thinking, 'Wow, maybe I do want to do this.' From then on I started getting enthusiastic."