Maria Guida’s performance in the women’s marathon at the European Championships in Munich kept approximately five million Italians glued in front of their televisions on 10 August, with her ultimate victory a much deserved reward for a long running career that has been blighted by injuries.
Guida, who is now 36, underwent surgery to her right Achilles tendon in 1996 shortly after being forced to miss the Olympic 10,000 metres final. In Atlanta, she got through her qualifying heat but was forced to withdraw just a few hours before the final because the pain in her Achilles tendon was so unbearable that surgery was a necessity.
She therefore missed a good chance of winning an Olympic medal, having shown her world class form the previous summer, when coming fourth (31:27.82, a personal best), at the World Championships in Gothenburg.
After the disappointments of Atlanta, Guida decided to turn to marathon racing but misfortune did not abandon her in her new discipline. After running the classic distance in 2:25:57 (PB) in Carpi in 1999 and finishing seventh in 2:26:12 at the Flora London marathon in 2000, she suffered a micro-fracture during a training period in Brisbane on the eve of the 2000 Olympics.
“I would like to thank my fiancé, Gianluca Carretta and my coach Luciano Gigliotti who have always supported me during the worst years of my career. The gold medal in Munich is really a compensation for the hard and dedicated work and what I have had to suffer from after so many misfortunes”, said Maria.
“I planned to retire at the end of the year, at 36, after Munich and New York. But after getting the first major title of my career I am changing my plans, and I am thinking of another year of competition,” she also confirmed.
The decision whether to continue her career or hang up her running shoes will depend on her result in New York.
“If everything goes according to plan and I remain injury-free I could prepare for the next World Championships in Paris. I will decide my future at the end of 2002.”
The legendary ‘Big Apple’ event is her immediate goal for the next few weeks.
“My training schedule is going according to plan. Next week I will start to focus my training on long distance runs of at least two hours a day or 30 km.”
Her main challengers in New York will be Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan the double European track silver medallist, and the two Kenyans, Lornah Kiplagat, who ran the distance in 2:23:55 in Osaka and holds the world best for 20 Km (1:03:54), and Susan Chepkemei, who was fifth in London this year in a PB of 2:23:19 and is the holder of the World half marathon best (1:05:44).
“The gold medal in Munich and the celebrations that followed have distracted me a bit from my training plan which was focused on New York. I must admit the celebrations organized by my friends pleased me a lot. The European triumph did not change my life even though people, not only athletics fans, now stop to congratulate me and ask for autographs. Now I am enjoying this popularity.”
In Munich her win in a new championship record time of 2:26:05, even aroused the enthusiasm of local German spectators who never stopped supporting her along the marathon route which passed through the streets of the Bavarian capital. The support was particularly strong in the crowded Marienplatz, where Maria caught up with her main rivals Luminita Zeituc of Germany and the Belgian Marleen Renders, who was leading the race until the 25th kilometre and dropped out after keeping a very fast pace.
At 28 kilometres Guida drew away from Zeituc and with seven kilometres to go she gained a 48 seconds lead over her main rivals, the Germans Zeituc and Oberem, respectively the second and third place finishers.
“The pace kept by Renders in the first kilometres was suicidal. I was sure that she could not go on until the finish line. When I caught up with her at the 25th kilometre I was confident that something very special could come. With seven kilometres to go I was sure that the gold medal was mine.”
Supported by one particularly fervent Italian fan, who gave her the national flag even before she entered the Olympic stadium, she increased her lead to 53 seconds over Zeituc and Oberem.
The crowd in the stadium welcomed her with a standing ovation.
“The dream of my life has always been to enter a stadium first, supported by fifty thousand enthusiastic fans. When I crossed the finish line I looked back at the most difficult years of my career when the injuries, which would have discouraged many athletes to continue, prevented me from running. But I have always been determined not to give up.”
“What I achieved in Munich is the result of my long experience. Now I know what the limits of my capabilities are and how to ration my effort during the races.”
Guida, the only Italian gold medallist in Munich, was born in Vico Equense, a few kilometres from Naples, in 1966. In 1995 she moved to Modena, in Northern Italy to be trained by Luciano Gigliotti, the former coach of Gelindo Bordin the 1988 Marathon Olympic champion, who also coaches Stefano Baldini, the 1998 European champion, 2001 World bronze medallist and national record holder (2:07:29).
“When I met Luciano during a training camp at Sestrieres for the first time in 1990, I realized soon that he could become the right coach for me. He is not the kind of person who pushes his athletes to perform beyond their capabilities or to train if tired. If he sees I am too tired, he is the first to suggest me some days rest. He always supports and encourages me.”
With her European triumph in Munich, Guida has lived up to the Italian tradition for marathon running established in the last few decades, firstly with Orlando Pizzolato, double New York winner (1985, 1986), then the 1988 Olympic champion Gelindo Bordin, and which came to its present pinnacle with the medal sweep at the 1998 European men’s marathon, which was achieved by Stefano Baldini, Danilo Goffi and Vincenzo Modica.
If Guida remains injury-free she will be one of the major Italian medal hopes at the 2003 IAAF World Championships in Paris. It’s a big “if” considering her injury ravaged career but even so, Italian fans are already looking forward to cheering and supporting Maria in her run for glory in the French capital next summer.