Zola Budd Reflects On Career And Life

In order to be the best, you have to learn from the best.

Dozens of cross country athletes (and a few coaches, too) didn't let a learning opportunity slip past them earlier this month as they got advice from and asked questions of one of the most accomplished middle distance runners in the past 40 years during the annual California University of Pennsylvania camp.

In 1984, Zola (Budd) Pieterse was the talk of and then one of the most talked about names in international running. In a little over two years, the then teenager broke world records and claimed global championships amidst international controversy, family turmoil and one famous/infamous mid-race collision that changed the outcome of a much-anticipated Olympic final.

Just days into the new year of '84, Pieterse, then 17, became the fastest woman ever over 5,000 meters, covering the distance in her native South Africa in 15:01.83. The time and her barefoot running style sent shockwaves through the track world.

Because of her country's apartheid policies at the time, the mark was never recognized as a world record even though it was significantly better than the 15:08.26 posted by Mary Decker of the U.S. in July 1982 at Hayward Field. The two would meet later in 1984 in the 3,000 final of the Los Angeles Olympics that left the American writhing in pain on the inside of the track and Pieterse headed for a non-medal finish.

Pieterse's appearance at this year's camp drew a standing-room only crowd to Blaney Theatre on the Cal U campus. Currently the head men's and women's cross country coach at Coastal Carolina University, Pieterse moved to the U.S. and the Myrtle Beach, S.C., area in 2008 and immediately became a volunteer coach for the Chanticleers.

Pieterse spoke of the expedited process that allowed her to run for Great Britain in her first Olympics. Pushed through by a British newspaper that paid her father for the exclusive rights to her story, the change in nationality got her a ticket to Los Angeles and made her the target of protesters.

The on-track contact with Decker only intensified the focus on Pieterse, who nevertheless responded with back-to-back IAAF world championships in cross country in 1985 and '86 and PRs in the mile (4:17.57) and 3,000 (8:28.83) in 1985 that remain the U-20 world records today.

Some of the runners and coaches who came to meet Pieterse will be back on campus Saturday when the invitational season kicks off in western Pennsylvania with the Marty Uher Invitational.