Like most elite athletes, Osaka 10,000m bronze medallist Kara Goucher is no stranger to adversity. She's very familiar with the roller coaster ride most athletes must navigate.
For Goucher that roller coaster began at a young age. Seven days before her fourth birthday, Kara's father, Mirko Grgas was killed by a drunk driver at 6:30 a.m. on Harlem River Drive near 142nd Street in New York City.
The driver of the car that killed Kara's father lost control of his vehicle, it jumped the divider and went airborne, then crashed into Grgas's car, according to a United Press International report published in the New York Times. Grgas was an All American soccer player in college and was good enough to be drafted by St. Louis's pro soccer team, but at that time, pro soccer players of his caliber could only command a salary of $12,000, not enough for a family with three kids, so Grgas got a job with his brother's insulation business and played with teams around New York in his spare time. After his death, Kara, her mother Patty, and sisters Kelly and Kendall moved to Duluth, Minnesota to be near Patty's parents Cal and Ola Jena Haworth because, Patty says, she knew she couldn't raise three kids on her own.
Strong grandparents’ influence
It some ways it was a fortuitous move as it cemented the extended family bond. Kara's grandparents became surrogate parents and that bond remains strong. Her family and that of husband, Adam Goucher, are the foundations of Kara's life. Kara and Adam make frequent visits to their respective parent's homes, and it's clear that Kara's grandparents had a major role in shaping her values and encouraging her in her athletic and academic pursuits. It was Cal who ran with Kara in her first race at the Hermantown Summerfest, he recalled.
Though not a runner or particularly athletic, Cal agreed to run with Kara because he thought it was important to encourage and support his granddaughter's activities. As the pair took off at the start of the run, Kara was tripped and fell. She got up with a bloodied knee, and Cal said let's stop and I'll clean up that cut. Kara said no and bolted on ahead, determined not to lose time.
Before long she was far ahead of her grandfather and had demonstrated at an early age great talent in running, as well as her determination and will to succeed. When she got her first B in honours biology in high school, she cried.
She took dance classes. She played the French horn, but it was running where she excelled. That success helped her and her Duluth East high school teams to state championships, but it also provided another glimpse at overcoming setbacks. At the qualifying meet for going to the Minnesota state championships one year, Goucher had the fastest qualifying time coming into the race.
However, at the start of the race, she lost her balance and stepped forward before the starting gun fired. Though she stepped back and was behind the line when the gun fired to start the race, she was disqualified and not allowed to compete in that event at the state meet because she had violated the false start rule. Cal thought the rule was unfair and wrote to the high school league to protest. Even college and Olympic athletes are allowed one false start, Cal argued, you are sending the wrong message to kids by having such a harsh rule for high scholars. Kara accepted the punishment, noting that rules were rules, no matter how unfair they might seem.
Fighting her psychological ‘demons’
Her high school years also revealed an issue she still struggles with, the mental aspect of the sport. The distance events in Minnesota girls high school competition, US Olympian Carrie Tollefson dominated. She would beat Goucher every time they raced. This got to be such a mental thing that during one cross country meet when the weather was cold, Goucher wore tights and Tollefson did not. Goucher's coach attributed Tollefson's victory to the fact that Goucher had worn tights. After that Goucher would refuse to wear tights in races. She also had the habit of "talking myself out" of winning some races, what she calls her "negative self chatter." A psychology major at the University of Colorado, Goucher has since come to grips with her "demons," but knows that it is something she has to concentrate and work on as much as her physical skills.
As Cal pointed out to her recently, he would read about Goucher's post-race comments and see the dialog of self doubt. When she won the Great North Run half marathon in 1:06:57, beating Paula Radcliffe in September, Goucher says that she was talking to herself during the later stages of the race, fighting the fatigue. She had had issues with slight injuries to her heel and the IT band in her leg during the summer, and both areas hurt in the final miles.
"I remember thinking, I could just step off right now and say it was my heel or my IT band," she said of her internal monologue. "It would have been true. They were bothering me, but I was able to get through that."
After college, Salazar pulls her from verge of quitting
Cal says that she puts up all these logs that she has to jump. And she has had plenty of big "logs" jump. This summer, not long before the World Championships were she broke through to get a bronze in the 10,000 metres, her coach, Alberto Salazar nearly died from a heart attack. It was Salazar who had rescued her from a series of injuries that seemed about to end her career prematurely after college. At a time when she could have easily said goodbye to the sport, Salazar stepped in and accepted her into the Nike program. "He believed in me right away," Goucher said. "I didn't have to do anything to prove myself. He never gave up. He was always positive. He said just get your health back. He was excited to work with me."
Salazar's heart attack also reinforced something she already knew. Running was an important part of her life, but "it's not what defines me," she said. "It's just putting one foot in front of the other." But she has been able to put one foot in front of the other exceedingly well. It is her gift, one that she wants to enjoy for as long as her body will let her. When she went with Nike, she knew that she was going to have to devote most of her days and nights to running, make a full commitment. The risk was that she might find out she was not as good as she hoped she was, the reward was that she would succeed.
With the bronze medal and the win over Radcliffe at the half marathon, Goucher has seen her commitment pay off, but she doesn't want to this to be the end of the story. She believes she can do more. Her life has not changed after her ascension to the upper echelons of the sport, she says, aside from being asked for her autograph by a stewardess on the plane from England and a bit more interest from the media and people from her past, Goucher hasn't experienced the spotlight of fame that often shines on elite athletes. But that may well be the next thing she has to cope with as she prepares for the next phase of her career and the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games.
Jim Ferstle for the IAAF