March 28, 1997 in Sports

For Ashford, Reaching Goals Was Big Payoff

John Blanchette The Spokesman-R

Not counting the Olympics she was Jimmy Cartered out of, Atlanta’s Games were the first since 1972 in which Evelyn Ashford wasn’t coiling herself into the starting blocks.

But she did go to watch.

She was up close for the hysteria over Kerri Strug getting Bela-coptered to the awards stand. She saw the city of Columbus develop a crush on women’s softball. She was a witness to the goodwill generated by Teresa Edwards and her basketball teammates, while the Dream Team elicited yawns. And now she sees Mia Hamm showing up in shampoo commercials.

“Things get better,” Ashford said Thursday, after speaking to an audience of nearly 900 at the YWCA’s annual benefit breakfast. “Women were highlighted at this Olympics. Our basketball team, our sprinters, our gymnasts - it was a year for women to be highlighted, and for it to happen in the United States was great.”

Even if it didn’t happen to her?

“I accomplished every one of my goals,” she insisted. “I have no regrets.”

When you have four gold medals, it does seem rather pointless to regret not having five.

Or that you’re not selling shampoo.

Or that a cartoon-voiced acrobat is the one doing sketches on “Saturday Night Live” and not you.

Since the public rewards for our women Olympians - in the telegenic sports only, of course - are so much greater now than even 12 or 13 years ago, it’s tempting to regard America’s finest female sprinter as a victim, however minor, of unfortunate timing.

And to an extent, that’s always been true of Evelyn Ashford.

The Carter pullout of 1980. The Soviet bloc boycott of ‘84. The FloJo nova of ‘88. The inexorable toll of age in ‘92.

All siphoned a watt or two from the Ashford legacy, though the glare off all those medals certainly remains enough to read by.

As for being born too early to participate in this current American orgy of appreciation for women’s athletics, well, Ashford was never particularly good at being appreciated anyway.

The smile she showed off for her breakfast audience Thursday was something we didn’t see enough of when she was running rivals off the track in the 1980s. She never suffered the press gladly - and before her first gold medal in 1984, it was more like zero tolerance.

If it seemed joyless, at least it was usually dignified. When she lost, she didn’t rage about steroid sprint queens in the manner that later made Gwen Torrence notorious.

“I didn’t let anybody get to know me,” she said, “and I didn’t want anyone to know what I was thinking. Because I was afraid that might give someone an edge. And that’s what (sprinting) is all about: getting an edge.”

It’s about more now, she acknowledged.

“The Games are bigger and more hyped,” she said. “The athletes focus more on financial gain than they used to. When I was coming up, there wasn’t any financial gain to be had, but athletes now realize if they do well in the Olympics, they can do well financially. That’s more in the forefront. Corporate America has kept the Olympics alive.”

It’s hard to say why the payoff for women didn’t come in Los Angeles in 1984 rather than Atlanta in 1996. Maybe our disgust with pro sports hadn’t reached the crisis level. Maybe because Title IX hadn’t yet had a full generation to make an impact. The watered-down competition - no East Germans, no Soviets - had something to do with it, as well, but so did old notions. How else to explain last year’s to-do over Michael Johnson’s double in the 200 and 400 meters, when Valerie Brisco-Hooks had pulled off the same feat 12 years before?

On the other hand, it’s noteworthy that Ashford herself doesn’t regard any of her golds as her finest moment, necessarily. Not the 100-meter victory in ‘84. Not the magnificent anchor leg that took the U.S. from third to first in the 4x100 relay in 1988.

Ten days after winning in L.A., Ashford set a world record of 10.76 seconds and beat East German rival Marlies Gohr in front of 29,000 spectators in Zurich.

“It was,” she’s said, “how I thought the Games would be.”

Ashford took the next year off to give birth to her daughter, Raina, and to re-evaluate.

“I was told I’d met my goals,” she said, “that I was 23 or 24 and I should sit and be happy. But after my daughter was born, I still had that feeling in my stomach. I still wanted to compete. So I had to go against the conventional thinking and go ahead and compete.”

She never ran as fast as she did in ‘84, and then she ran into FloJo. But the relay golds of ‘88 and ‘92 gave her the most of any American female track athlete ever.

Her goals now are, she said, “not as lofty.

“I want to be a good mother, instill self-confidence in my daughter. I want to be financially independent, to stay a size 6, live to be 100.”

She has little involvement with track and field anymore and has no desire to coach unless perhaps her daughter, now 11, “decides to give up being a chef and concentrate on running.

“She can run. She’s got the fastest time in her school and she jumps the longest of anyone in her school, but doesn’t want anything to do with it.”

Daunting footsteps, perhaps.

Atlanta hadn’t even taken down all the Coca Cola signs before we were making every female gold medalist in sight a role model for the next generation. That’s another reason, perhaps, that Ashford was just right for her time.

She was not a pioneer, like Wilma Rudolph or Wyomia Tyus. She went to UCLA on scholarship, even if she earned it by running against boys in high school.

“I ran for myself,” she said. “I can’t say I was doing it with anything else in mind. I was running for Evelyn, because Evelyn felt passionate about running.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

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