Interview with Francie Larrieu Smith… an Olympic Legend
By Dan Helfrick, Huxley Running Co.
Francie Larrieu Smith was named by Runner’s World as the “most versatile runner of the Quarter century”. And rightfully so, as she competed in four Olympic Games racing from the 1500 to the marathon! She had a 30 year long athletic career and now coaches at Southwestern University in Texas. I had the chance to be on two international teams where Francie was a team leader. We traveled to Amman, Jordan and Guadalajara, Mexico, where I had the opportunity to get to know her personally. I asked if she would be interested in sharing her story with Huxley, and she willingly agreed. Enjoy the story of this legendary athlete!
During her 30 year career, Francie held 36 U.S. records and numerous World records ranging from the 1000m to the 10,000m. She qualified for the ’72, 76, 80, 88 and 92 U.S. Olympic teams with her best performance being the 10,000m in ’88 when she placed 5th in 31:35. Interestingly, in 1992, Francie’s last Olympics, both she and my dad placed 12th in the marathon.
HRC-Where to begin? So, five-time Olympic team member; the first American woman to earn these honors (followed by Dara Torres in 2008, according to Wiki), what do you believe contributed to the longevity of your successful career?
FLS-Not true (Wiki lies). Willye White a long jumper and sprinter made 5 U.S. Olympic teams (1956-60-64-68-72). Willye’s final Olympic Team was my first. Some might say she passed the torch my way. Regarding longevity-In a nut shell: Persistent pursuit of the goal I set at age 13—go to the Olympics and win a gold medal. This coupled with the changes that occurred in T&F and the Olympic Games over the course of my athletic career. I was fortunate to have run the first ever 1500 (1972) and 10,000 (1988) for women in the Olympic Games. Also the rules changed in T&F where athletes could earn prize money, thus, while I never lost sight of the ultimate goal of winning a gold medal, athletic competition became my job (though the income for athletes back then was miniscule in comparison to today’s standard). Last, but certainly not least, I love to compete!
HRC-Going back to the beginning, how did you get involved in the sport, and how did these carry you to your first Olympic Games?
FLS-In a time when there were no athletic programs in the schools for girls and limited opportunity in athletics for women (we are talking the 60s and pre-Title IX) I would answer this question with one word-exposure-to the sport. My oldest brother Ron competed for the U.S. in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. He ran in the famous Billy Mills gold medal 10,000 meter race. Through watching my brother compete, I learned that girls can compete also. It NEVER occurred to me I could not do this.
HRC-You started in the 1500, moved to the 5000, and then up to the marathon. Was it your idea or your coach’s to move up in distance? It obviously was successful, but did you ever have any doubts or regrets?
FLS-My progression in sport mirrored the changes in opportunity for women in T&F. I was all about the Olympic Games. I actually started as an 800 meter runner, because back then that was the longest race in the Olympic Games for women. The 1500 was added for women in 1972 and my recently retired age group coach Augie Argabright, believed the 1500 would be my best event. While I did run a few 5000s on the track, I did not actively pursue that event. The 5000 was NOT an event for women in the Olympics until post FLS (my) career (1996). With regards to the 10,000/Marathon: In 1980s, I consciously decided to turn to road racing in 1985 (after the LA-Olympic Games). Road racing was becoming popular in the U.S., thanks in part to individuals such as Grete Waitz. The women’s 400 hurdles, 3000m and marathon were added to the ’84 Olympic Games.
I believed that while I had set a goal of running a marathon back in the 70s and had determined that I would move up in distance, I was still all about the Olympic Games and believed the marathon would be a stretch for me at that point in time. I stayed on the track and turned to the roads in ‘85. This was a decision that I reached following the ’80 Games and my association with Coach Preston Davis and prior to becoming involved with my long-time coach Robert Vaughan. I was extremely discouraged after my failure to qualify for the Olympic Team in 1984 (another story) and competing on the roads breathed new life into my athletic career. Fortunately for me the women’s 10,000 was added to the slate for the ’88 Games in Seoul. While I had turned to road racing I still LOVED the track. The 10,000 on the track was a no brainer for me.
I ran my first marathon in 1985 and planned to compete in both the marathon and 10,000 in the ’88 Olympic Trials. A minor injury and subsequent testing by my coach Robert Vaughn indicated I was not ready to sustain the pace needed to make the team in the marathon. In the winter of ’88 my focused shifted to qualifying for the Olympic team in the first ever women’s 10,000 in the Olympic Games (ultimately my best finish—5th) and the first time I walked off the Olympic Games track with no excuses. Following ’88 I turned my focus to the marathon and ran my personal best of 2:27:35 at the 1991 London Marathon. That was also the year I ran what was then an AR in the 10,000 31:28.92 just 2 weeks prior to London. No regrets. I had my 15 minutes of fame and loved every minute!
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