Her face is as pretty as a child's. The bone structure that supports her 115 pounds is delicate to the point of fragility. Her public demeanor is what used to be called ladylike. She is graceful, gentle, modest and soft-spoken. Even when she runs, no unseemly haste is apparent in her movements. She appears less to run than to flow fast. The ferocious intensity shows only in the results. Evelyn Ashford was the first woman to run both the 100 meters in less than II seconds (an American-record 10.90) and the 200 in less than 22 seconds (an American-record 21.83). In 1979, at World Cup II in Montreal, she beat the East German world-record holders in the 100 and 200. And two weeks ago at World Cup III in Rome she won the same two events and was the meet's only double winner.
Although Ashford is now the preeminent woman sprinter in the world, her ascension has not been a smooth one. In 1980, having taken more than a year off from her studies at UCLA and with months of heavy stamina and weight training behind her, Ashford was ready for the Moscow Olympics, ready to win one, two, maybe even three or four gold medals, ready to be the first American woman sprinter since the days of Wilma Rudolph, Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus to climb to the top step of the victory stand and ever after be an inspiration to young athletes, just as Rudolph and Tyus had been to her. Afterward, according to the script, she might think of retiring, of going back to school, having babies, owning a dress shop someday and never again experiencing the pressure of competing at the world-class level.
But that script was shelved. Because of the intensity of her concentration, Ashford was among the last to accept that there would be no Olympics for the U.S. in 1980. She refused to believe it. When the fact finally became inescapable, her world came tumbling around her ears. She had endured more than a year of total dedication, of training twice a day, of lifting weights three nights a week, of worrying about how to pay a parking ticket—not to mention the rent—without having her spirit dented, but the boycott broke her. "I guess the best way to describe it was I felt as if my soul was ripped out of me," she says.
She continued to train, listlessly, for a while. She went to three meets in Japan just to have something to do. But in May, while running the 100 in the Pepsi meet at UCLA, she pulled her right hamstring and that was the end of her Olympic year. The devastation was complete. Shock gave way to depression. She cried "every 15 minutes," according to her husband, Ray Washington.
In August, Evelyn and Ray decided to drive from Los Angeles to Detroit, Ray's hometown, for a family reunion, and then on to Miami to see Evelyn's parents. As they crossed the country, Evelyn thought about the past and the future, goals and disappointments, and where she was going next. "While we were driving I was thinking, 'Maybe it was supposed to happen like this, maybe it was fate.' I thought about quitting and not running again."
"Evelyn had more to lose than most people because she had a real clear shot at winning a gold," says Pat Winslow Connolly, a former Olympic pentathlete, second wife of Harold Connolly, the 1956 Olympic hammer-throw champion, and Ashford's coach at UCLA and since. "It wasn't like the average person who was just hoping to make the team. Evelyn had a chance to do more than Edwin Moses, more than [Renaldo] Nehemiah. She had a chance at two gold medals for sure, and two more in the relays if things went well. So it was just all the more devastating."
By last September, though, when Evelyn and Ray returned to Los Angeles, she was ready to start over, but this time with a different focus. She would run again, but never again would she give over her whole life to running. She would go back to school, but not to UCLA, where she had been a vaguely dissatisfied sociology major. Rather she would go to Cal State-Los Angeles on the other side of town, where she could try her hand at the subjects that really interested her—design and textiles. She would approach each year as it arrived. She would think about the 1984 Olympics in 1984. Never again would her physical and mental well-being depend on the whim of a politician or anyone else.
"We decided, Pat, Ray and me, that we would go ahead and train for this year to see what would happen. We decided we might as well, we had nothing else to do. Not because I had any love for the sport at that time. At that time I still didn't care about anything. I guess it took me about two months to really start feeling something again, to feel alive again."
The first meet of the 1981 indoor season for Ashford was the Albuquerque Invitational. When she arrived at the Albuquerque airport, her starting time was only an hour away and no one was there to meet her. Her only thoughts were of getting to Tingley Coliseum. Once there she ran the fastest 60-yard dash of her life, a 6:65, which broke "Chandra Cheeseborough's two-year-old world indoor record.
"That was when I started thinking, 'Wow, maybe I do want to do this.' From then on I started getting enthusiastic."
Albuquerque was also the meet at which Ashford introduced "the suit": three ounces of a body-hugging Lycra-polyurethane blend made by Descente, the Japanese company that makes racing suits for speed skaters, among them Eric Heiden. In fact it was while Evelyn and Pat Connolly were admiring Heiden in his sleek golden getup on television during the Lake Placid Olympics that the idea for the suit first occurred.
"Pat said. That suit looks like it's fast. I think you should try to get one,' " Evelyn recalls. "I said, 'Pat, I'll never wear that thing. There's no way in the world.' "
But fate intervened, and Ashford had second thoughts. In Japan in the spring of 1980 she met a Descente representative and wondered aloud whether the company might make a suit for running. The company did, two of them, one red and one black, both long-sleeved and long-legged. Though Evelyn Ashford may be shy, she isn't a prude and she is distinctly stylish. She likes to design and makes her own clothes when she has time. Evelyn tried out her new black suit at a party in Santa Monica in December. She added boots and gold chains and a belt ("You know, the disco look"), and when it proved a smashing success, she decided to wear it at an indoor meet. As she says, "The rest is history.
"It's not really tight, it's snug," she says. "It moves when I move. I can feel the wind go by when I run. It feels good. It feels fast."
Descente is delighted at the stir its design has caused but is undecided as yet just what to do about it. The company estimates that the suit would cost at least $300 in the U.S. In the meantime, however, Descente made sleeveless summer models for Evelyn in tan, blue, purple and rust.
Evelyn is the oldest of the five children of Vietta and Samuel Ashford, an Air Force senior master sergeant. She was born in Shreveport, La., one of her father's many posts; she claims never to have counted all the places she has lived. Okinawa and Morocco stand out in her memory, but the various Stateside bases tend to blur. It was while Samuel Ashford was in Vietnam that Evelyn, then 13 and living in Athens, Ala., did her first running. "I wasn't good at ball games, at throwing things," she says, "but I was pretty flexible and I could run. I could hit the ball to the pitcher and beat the ball to first base. I could always do that. My PE teacher noticed I could run, so she started a track team. She didn't know anything about coaching or training anybody, so we didn't train. We'd just go to the meet and run. When you're young you never get tired. It feels good all the time."
The following year, 1972, brought still another move, and Evelyn didn't run again until she was a senior at Roseville High near Sacramento in 1975. Again a PE teacher noticed her speed. This one directed her to the boys' track team, there being none for girls, and she became one of California's best high school sprinters. She ran the 100-yard dash in a handheld 10.3, and that was good enough to get her a scholarship to UCLA.
Ashford's freshman year on the West-wood campus was also Pat Connolly's first year as head coach of the women's varsity track team. Earlier, in 1972-73, as an unpaid volunteer with a budget of $300. she had put together a women's club team, but the next year she quit to get divorced and reorganize her life. Two years later Connolly was asked to return. By then she was remarried, to Harold Connolly, and had a son, Adam, who was five months old.
"I didn't know any of the girls, although I'd heard of a couple of them," says Connolly. "So I made everybody try out doing everything. I didn't even notice Evelyn. She was little [she is 5'5"] and shy, a freshman. I had them run 100 yards for time. I was standing on the grass over there and she started to run down the track in her flats. I looked at her and I thought, 'Oh boy, here's a runner.' Then I looked at my watch and I didn't believe the time [10.8]. I apologized. I said, 'I think I messed up your time. Would you mind running it once more for me?' and she did. And it was the same time. She was sensational, raw, all by herself, no formal coaching or anything."
Because Connolly, a strapping blue-eyed blonde of 38, had been to three Olympics herself, first as an 800-meter runner (Once, years later on an airplane, Connolly sat next to Gavriil Korobkov, the famous Soviet coach. He said to her, "You know we thought it was very funny the Americans should send a discus thrower to run the 800 meters") and later as a pentathlete, she was Olympics-oriented. And because 1976 was an Olympic year, she aimed her team in the direction of the Olympic Trials instead of the intercollegiate championships, to the consternation of some people in the UCLA athletic department. Six members of her team made it to the Trials and two—Ashford and Karin Smith, the javelin thrower—made the Olympic team. Ashford qualified third in the 100 behind Brenda Morehead and Cheeseborough, the two favorites from Tennessee State. In Montreal she gained the final of her event, in which she finished fifth.
"She came back after Montreal with her eyes opened," says Connolly. "I think she was hungry, and I played on that."
The next year, 1977, Ashford won the sprint "double double"—the 100 and the 200—in both the collegiate and the AAU championships, and from that point on she and Connolly aimed for Moscow in 1980.
After the 1978 season, Connolly and UCLA parted company, temporarily, she thought. But as it worked out, the separation was permanent. Pat was now free—when, that is, she wasn't seeing after the seven children she and Harold had accumulated in their various marriages—to concentrate on Ashford and the Moscow Olympics. She had observed that many track champions, not just sprinters, seemed to produce their best marks in the year that followed a year of exceptionally hard training. With that in mind, she persuaded Evelyn to drop out of school in January 1979 and undertake a doubled training load. "I told her, 'I don't know how you're going to perform this year, but you've got to take the risk so that 1980 will be easy, just as a matter of keeping fresh and sharp.' "
As it happened, the 1979 season turned out very well, culminating in the World Cup II victories over Marlies G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áhr and Marita Koch, the East German world-record holders in the 100 (10.88) and 200 (21.71), respectively. The difference: eight months of mornings at UCLA's Drake Stadium track; afternoons over the hills and on the beaches of Santa Monica and Venice, running on the sand and in the water; and evenings in a variety of gyms and health clubs.
This summer the training methods were the same but the goal different. "I just want to run as fast as I can this year," said Ashford in July. "I know if I do that, I'll have the world record. I'm really thinking about the 100 because I know if my time comes down in the 100, the 200's automatically going to follow. Maybe the 400, too. I don't know. But I feel good now. My times this year have been consistently where I want them."
Ray and Evelyn were having lunch at a Hamburger Hamlet in Westwood Village before leaving for Europe and the meets preceding the World Cup. As Evelyn spoke, Ray, who was an art major at Cal State-L.A., was creating with the materials at hand. "This is a messy hamburger," he observed. "I keep trying to decorate it and it keeps moving."
"I don't think the world record will happen at the World Cup," Evelyn said. "Because of all the pressure. It will probably happen before. The World Cup isn't the ideal condition."
Ray looked up from his work on the hamburger. "Well, if it did happen at the World Cup, what would you do?"
"I'd be delirious," she said.
"I suppose you'd say, it wasn't supposed to happen here,' " he teased.
Evelyn rolled her eyes and ignored him. "I hate to say I want to run a world record because I think it will jinx me," she said. "People will expect it, and it won't come, and then people will say, 'She doesn't know what she's talking about.' "
As it turned out, she didn't set any records either before World Cup III or in winning both the 100 and 200 in Rome. And at dinner after the meet she was subdued despite her triumph. "I wanted a world record this season," she said. A fellow runner who knows her well believes she won't be satisfied with herself until she accomplishes one or both of two goals: an Olympic gold medal or a world record.
Ashford isn't a glib conversationalist and she considers carefully what few things she says. Her answers to questions are often delivered in sections with lengthy pauses between them, as if she is hoping nobody will notice that she has stopped talking. The questioner who isn't willing to wait will never find out what she has on her mind, because if the questioner doesn't pursue the subject, the chances are neither will Evelyn. On one subject, however, Ashford is downright voluble.
"Drugs. It's the thing to do right now," she says. "I've heard people say that's why I run so fast. 'She must be on drugs, she must be on steroids.' People really believe that in order to do well you have to be taking something. And I don't understand that. I really don't. Damn! It does make you mad. American women athletes are so psyched out about what the East Germans are doing, what the Russians are doing. You hear it all the time: 'They're all on steroids, they're all on drugs.' I think that's a lot of crap. That's just those people's excuse for not running well. It's a copout. You don't know what you can do, and with drugs you'll never find out. I believe in women, I believe in myself, I believe in my body. I believe I can run faster not using drugs than people using drugs because that's the way I was put here."
Pointing to her head, she continues, "I fully believe it's here, this is where it is, and I proved that to myself in 1979. I told myself I wanted to do it and I was willing to work for it—and it came about."
Connolly, who came to coaching from the pentathlon, where steroids were in use long before they reached the sprints, feels the same way. She reached a point in her own athletic career when she had to decide whether to take steroids to remain competitive. She chose to retire.
"Coaches say to young, impressionable girls, this is what you need if you want to do what you want to do," Connolly says. "A woman taking steroids is a freak. She grows hair, she stops menstruating, et cetera. What we, Evelyn and I, want to prove is that a normal, natural woman who isn't a freak can be the best. Evelyn has to win. My daughter, who is three, is going to be big. She's already twice the size of the other children her age. Obviously she's going to be an athlete of some kind. For my daughter's sake, Evelyn has to win."
The burden of responsibility Evelyn Ashford has chosen to carry is extraordinary, but she has made herself equal to it. The story of her determination can be read in the muscles of her thighs, her buttocks and her back.
She is justifiably proud of those muscles. They are spectacular-looking enough that recently she was asked to pose for the cover of a bodybuilding magazine, an honor she declined. "I don't want to be around people who even look at drugs," she says. More important, however, is the fact that those muscles are the product of her own hard work, nothing else. Whatever happens now—however fast she runs and however many world records or gold medals she accumulates—she intends to explore her talents fully. And that, after all, is an athlete's true reward.