30 December 1999Gabriela Szabo, the woman athlete of the year, has learned the hard way to steer clear of predictions. Installed as favourite for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics 5000m title, Szabo spoke openly about her ambitions.
"I said to everybody 'I'm going to win'," Szabo recalled. "To Romanian television, radio, everybody." After being feted by the Romanian media and public, Szabo confronted the heat and humidity of Atlanta and, to her great dismay, failed even to qualify for the final in the event.
She did, however, come away with one medal, a largely unexpected silver in the 1500m in which she competed the following week. "It's better if I say nothing," Szabo concluded.
In the following year, Szabo won the world 5000m title in Athens after collecting gold in the world indoor 3000m, a prelude to an extraordinary 1999 season in which she was named as the International Amateur Athletic Federation's woman athlete of the year.
Szabo had learned her lesson. "I'm very superstitious," she said in an interview. "I don't like to say I'm going to do this or I'm going to do that." Instead she went quietly about her business, setting a world indoor 5000m record, collecting three world titles, earning seven Golden League victories and sharing the million dollar jackpot with just one other athlete.
During an undefeated season, Szabo won the world indoor 1500m and 3000m double and a gold medal over 5000m at the Seville World Championships.
She completed a 1500m and 3000m double at the European Cup in Paris and also became the first person to win more than a million dollars in prize money in a season.
Her on-track success was matched in her personal life when she married long-time coach Gyongyossy Zsolt in a former Romanian palace in October.
During the Golden League series Szabo's new found determination to eschew pre-race predictions became apparent. As one athlete after another dropped out of the running for the prize, Szabo repeatedly emphasised the difficulty of the task that still remained.
Frequently dueling with Moroccan Zahra Ouaziz before unleashing her devastating kick, Szabo won all of the prestigious series' events, just as she did in 1997, when she was the only female athlete to win the IAAF Golden Four series that preceded the Golden League.
Szabo employed the same blistering kick in defending her world outdoor title in Seville, Spain in August, and she then won the 3000m Grand Prix final in Munich, Gemany. Szabo topped the world indoor and outdoor 1999 lists over both distances, and broke the world indoor 5000m record when she ran 14:47.35 in February.
She narrowly missed the world 3000m mark with an 8:34.09 finish in Lievin, France in the same month and also holds the world best time over 2000m indoors.
Szabo and Zsolt also resisted making public their rumoured romance until shortly before their October 2 wedding near Bucharest.
After the annual World Athletics Gala dinner in Monte Carlo this month in which Szabo, 24, and American Michael Johnson were honoured with the Athlete of the Year awards, Szabo and Zsolt flew the following day to South Africa where she will train for the upcoming indoor season, away from the European winter.
"It's already cold and snowy in Romania," said her manager, Jos Hermens, in a telephone interview. Next year holds one primary goal for Szabo: chasing that
5000m Olympic gold that she took for granted but failed to achieve in 1996.
"I don't know yet if she can also do the 1500m," said Hermens. "The 5000m is the priority. It's important to show that she can be the best."