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For now, it seems that the chaos and distress that disrupted so much of Zola Budd's life no longer cast even a vague shadow over Zola Pieterse's slow, sunny world in Bloemfontein. "I can really say that I am happy now," she says. "Michael is a very great person. We have lots of things in common, but not sports. Oh, he plays golf, but he is not really good at it. I sometimes go with him and hit away at everything with a six-iron. We live quietly. I don't cook unless it is absolutely unavoidable. I am running again, of course, and it is going very well. Michael has no problem with my running or my being famous. He isn't threatened by it. Of course, because of Michael I don't have to run. Running is only one part of my life now, not all of it as it used to be, not everything."
But even if the running isn't everything anymore, it is definitely something that is getting bigger by the day. This is a relatively surprising development, for Pie-terse wrote in Zola that she was through with serious competition: "As a married woman, I just do not have the motivation necessary to make a comeback in the overseas arena.... If South Africa were to be readmitted to world athletics tomorrow, I don't think I would take part."
At the time Pieterse meant that beyond a doubt. She had let herself become quite plump—122 pounds, compared with the waifish 82 she had weighed during the Los Angeles Games. And she did no serious training from the spring of 1988 until mid-'89, when she began working out in secret. She picked an acquaintance from Bloemfontein to be her coach—Van Zyl Naude, who was once a pretty good 800-meter runner and now operates a photo processing shop and was training a dozen or so local runners on the side. "When Zola first began to run again, she felt shy," he says. "She had no idea whether she could come back, so she didn't want people to know she was training. At first, she could only train three days a week. It was very difficult for her."
"I only started again because it is my nature to run," she says. "I couldn't enjoy it at first. I'd train for two days, then I'd be sick for two days. In July 1989 I had tick-bite fever and encephalitis. I was in the hospital for a while. My system had all the energy sucked out. I had no resistance. I got infections, I was weak all the time. But I kept trying. In August I ran in a citizens' 10K race in Bloemfontein. They had no idea I was coming until the day of the race. I didn't want to make any splash at all. After four K's I was dead. But I kept going, and I finished, and I was terrible—37 minutes or so. That was the hardest race I ever ran in my life. But I was quite pleased to have finished. I kept training, but it wasn't until December I began to feel good and fit enough to consider running competitively."
By April 1990 she felt ready to take on the best woman distance runner in South Africa, Elana Meyer, at the South African championships. Meyer, a 23-year-old wisp of an athlete who had been turning in world-class times, had come to be hailed as the new Zola during the years when the real Zola was suffering from nagging injury and emotional exhaustion.
There didn't seem to be much of a chance for the barely fit Pie-terse. "I had only been training a year or so," she says. "Her training background was much better than mine, since she had been running constantly for five, six years. She was much more fit." To everyone's astonishment the real Zola defeated the new Zola by 8.36 seconds in the 3,000-meter race with the mediocre time of 9:17.00. In a rematch with Meyer in February of this year, Pieterse won again, this time by 1.84 seconds with a stunningly good time of 8:42.26. Pieterse was elated. "I had thought that if I could meet the Springbok national team standard of 8:50, I would be very happy at this stage of coming back," she said. "But 8:42! I have never come back from so long out of training, so I didn't know what to expect. I now think I am going to run better times than I ever did before. I won't be in top form for a while, but I'm definitely getting better." She does as many as three training sessions a day, and her weight has fallen to a strong 110 pounds, zaftig compared with her Olympic size but good for now.
On April 29 in the Indian Ocean coast city of Durban, Pieterse and Meyer went head-to-head in another 3,000. By then Meyer had broken Zola's South African record for the 5,000, and Pieterse had broken Meyer's mark for the 2,000. Durban's Kings Park Stadium was overflowing for the occasion, with 11,000 people crammed into a place built to accommodate 8,000. It was the largest crowd for a track and field meet there since 1964, when New Zealand's great middle-distance runner Peter Snell raced there in the first year of South Africa's exclusion from the Olympics.
Pieterse and Meyer hung together lap after lap, until the smooth-striding Meyer slowly began to move in front. When the bell rang for the last lap, she was leading by 15 meters. She held off Pieterse's kick and crossed the finish line in a burst of power, still 15 meters ahead. Her time of 8:32.00 was within 10 seconds of the world record and the best time in the world in the last 31 months. It surpassed Zola's African-and South African-record time of 8:37.5.
Pieterse finished in 8:35.72, which also broke her old record and was the second-best time in the world in the past 31 months.
Clearly Zola is back—and clearly she is capable of performances that could win world championships and Olympic medals. Will Zola Budd in her reincarnation as Zola Pieterse be given a second chance for glory? Yes, and it may be sooner rather than later. The IAAF is reported to be on the brink of inviting South African athletes back into competition in time for the world championships, which begin Aug. 23 in Tokyo.