Saturday, March 1, 2003

Life’s Journey has held many Twists and Turns for this Hero

Many people spend years, decades, even their entire lives searching for that special something that will make them complete. Leslie Seymour’s trip so far has been filled with adventure, intrigue and a bit of misfortune. But she hasn’t yet allowed life to get in her way.

Seymour's name may be unfamiliar to many, though she was a dominant Minnesota runner in the late 1980s and early 990s. She rarely ran road races, sticking more to her specialties of track and cross country. By the time she retired from her professional running career, Seymour had been a member of two USA World Cross Country teams, as well as one each World Indoor, World Outdoor and Pan-Am teams.
photo courtesy: The Sporting Life
But her start in running did not go as smoothly as people might assume.

Ask Seymour who her heroes are and you might expect answers like Kathrine Switzer or Joan Benoit Samuelson. But it might surprise you to know that without hesitation she names Fran Tarkenton as her hero. Football is and remains her first love.

The Exploration Begins

In the fall of 1974, Seymour was an incoming freshman at the old Regina High School in Minneapolis. Because she had been an avid Minnesota Vikings fan for most of her life, all she wanted to do was join the girls’ flag football team. So she went to an introductory meeting.

“They told me it’s tough to get on the team; that I should get in shape first to improve my chances. That’s when they told me the cross country team had already started workouts,” said Seymour. “So I joined them and thought it was god-awful.”

But even in those days Seymour’s stubbornness and determination persevered. “I told myself I was not going to stop and walk.” That mindset got her noticed.

She remembers vividly the day the cross country coach talked to them about needing special shoes for running. Seymour listened half-heartedly and then had some questions for the coach. She recalls the following conversation.

“Do I need special shoes for football?” she asked.

“You won’t be playing football,” he said.

“I won’t?” she asked.

“You’ll be on the cross country team,” he said.

Seymour went home a bit deflated but because she was shy at the time, she was not one to argue with the coach. She felt she had no other choice. So she told her parents she was going to be on the cross country team.

It was just a short time later when the coach announced the first meet would be in a few weeks. Now Seymour was really confused, as there wasn’t yet snow on the ground. All this time she thought she was on the cross country ski team. Her parents were the ones who first explained to her that they thought cross country was running.

“I ran that first race, and I was almost crying because it hurt so bad,” said Seymour. “I was gasping at the finish line and remember thinking I would never do this again.”

It was not the beginning of a love affair with running. But how long would it be before Seymour developed that drive, that love of this sport?

“I never really liked to run. I wish I did. I loved the people and the friends I made and my successes kept me going,” said Seymour. “Later I learned to love track & field. I loved the intense competition, the close contact and the intensity of it. It was neat.” But that love would take many years to develop and would not ever really fully bloom.

Seymour ran at St. Olaf College from 1978-1982. Although she was a seven-time All-American in cross country and track, she still wasn’t in love with the sport. In fact, it wasn’t until the summer before her senior year that she even did any off-season running at all. And still success followed her.

Finding Her Place

After graduation Seymour was convinced her running career was over. She had earned a biology degree from St. Olaf and was considering medical school. Ever since a seventh grade science class when Seymour dissected her first frog she had plans to go to medical school.

“It just amazed me how you could see the individual muscles. We would electrically stimulate the muscles and make them twitch. I got so intrigued with anatomy and physiology, how the body works. I thought, ‘Oh, gol, this is cool,’” said Seymour. “It was the first time I was really intrigued with the human body and how it functions. When I was in high school I dissected everything I possibly could.”

But Seymour felt the timing wasn’t quite right for medical school so instead she went back to school and obtained an elementary education degree from the University of Minnesota. She was busy as a substitute teacher and travelling when she started to take a closer look at road racing results in the paper.

“I started to notice that people I had competed against in college were doing well in races. I thought ‘I can do that.’ That’s when I started to think about running again,” said Seymour. “About that time I got a call from Joe Sweeney. He and Kirk Elias were putting together a new team called Club Sota.” Ultimately Elias would be the sole coach of the team.

photo courtesy: Leslie Seymour
“That’s how I started running again,” said Seymour. “Had it not been for Kirk Elias and Club Sota, I would not have gotten where I did.” And where her running took her was amazing.
A New World

But what had these two coaches seen in Seymour? And why did they want to coach her after a two-year hiatus from the sport? Elias is clear about what drew him to Seymour. “When we started I thought she was very talented, but it is so difficult to tell how someone will react when training changes dramatically. She was a speed-sided athlete who had not worked on volume. I thought that with the addition of volume she would improve significantly,” said Elias. “I simply thought she could be much better than she had been and I was eager to see how good.”

Seymour quickly emerged as a top local athlete but there were bigger things to come for her. “Once we had worked together for a year, the goals emerged quite easily: make world championship teams to gain international experience, make the 1988 Olympic team,” said Elias. “She became a mainstay on the U.S. national scene, though she was always quite overlooked in terms of the media. She was very disciplined and became very focused as she realized she had a chance to do some big things in the sport.”
photo courtesy: The Sporting Life

Elias says Seymour was a favorite to make the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, but she was sick leading up to the U.S. Trials and, as Seymour tells it, “completely bombed.” After the Trials, Seymour began to think seriously about ending her competitive running career. Ultimately, she did decide to pursue medical school. She went to the University of Minnesota Medical School from 1990-1994. She began her residency in the summer of 1994.

Rough Waters Mean Unplanned Detour

October 24, 1994 was the day when Seymour’s life took a turn no one could have anticipated. She was driving in north Minneapolis on a Saturday. It was early afternoon and she was going to return some rental movies before meeting her sister.

She was at an angled intersection. “When the light turned green, I went. Someone drove between two other cars that had been stopped and broad-sided mine,” said Seymour. “I don’t remember anything about the accident.”

Seymour suffered a closed-head contusion. She was in the hospital on a respirator for 12 days. For six of those days she was in a solid coma and then in and out of it for another week. Her parents had been on a cruise in the Greek Isles and got the call while in Turkey.

Seymour was first taken to North Memorial Medical Center. The same hospital, ironically, where she was in her medical residency. “I missed my last night of call because of the accident,” said Seymour.

Her father, who is a neurosurgeon, had her transferred to HCMC where one of his partners worked. She spent two weeks in the intensive care unit, one week on a general hospital floor and one week doing in-patient rehab. Then it was two weeks of day treatment rehab, where she lived at home but spent entire days at a rehab center. And then she did a month of outpatient rehab.

“My Dad said later they didn’t think there was any way I would be able to live independently again. I had to learn to walk again,” said Seymour. “But the doctors were astounded that I recovered as fast as I did. All along they were amazed. They kept saying, ‘She’s so healthy, so fit.’ My fitness level was a major factor in my recovery.”

Through it all Seymour maintained an incredible attitude. Even today when she talks about the accident, she’s positive. “I was incredibly fortunate,” said Seymour. “It could have been so much worse. I had no broken bones. I could have broken my back or my neck and been paralyzed.”

As is common in brain injuries, her recovery has been uneven and sometimes frustrating. Her sense of balance was a major issue after the accident. In the years since, she’s found that Tae Kwon Do has helped her regain that balance. Regaining her balance helped her get back to running eventually.

And still she finds humor in the whole story of the accident she doesn’t remember. “Fortunately someone did find and return those movies. Those late fees would have been a killer,” said Seymour. “It was definitely a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I shouldn’t have been so good about taking those movies back.”

Uncharted Territory

Seymour had been just four months into her medical residency at North Memorial at the time of the accident. It took her about a year to attempt a comeback. It lasted just six months.

“For six months I thought everything was going fine. However, I do remember thinking, ‘This is harder than I thought. I don’t remember it being this hard,’” said Seymour. “After six months I was taken aside and told, ‘You’re not going to make it.’ It was devastating.

“It’s taken me years to figure this all out. Looking back now, I was functioning so slowly and not getting things done. I can’t believe they let me go for so long,” said Seymour. “I think it was a part of being in the field of medicine. My colleagues didn’t know how to deal with something like this when it happened to one of their own.”

For three years after that Seymour worked as an assistant to her father and his partners in their neurosurgery practice. Knowing she had improved greatly during that time, Seymour attempted another comeback. She took and passed part III of the medical boards and applied for residency at HCMC.

“I went seven months at HCMC and during that time there were a number of issues that came up. I found I didn’t tolerate the workload and fatigue. I took some time off and after being away for a few weeks I felt so much better,” said Seymour. “I didn’t realize how fatigued I was. I didn’t want to live like that so I ultimately resigned.”

Continuing the Search

These days Seymour is still searching for what will fulfill her. She runs occasionally and has even completed a few road races, albeit at a slower pace. But she kept coming back to a desire she’d had since childhood: to work with people. Some have suggested she go into medical research, but that’s not what she wanted. She wants to work with patients; to help people.

It’s that desire that led her to Courage Center in Golden Valley. She walked in the door one day and said she wanted to volunteer. She was told she had to go through orientation first and the next session was that evening. If she didn’t do that, she’d have to wait a month. So with her usual determination, she asked to be put into that evening’s class.

Seymour now volunteers several days a week. She works in occupational therapy, physical therapy and tutoring residents in their educational needs.

She says it was her own experience with disability that led her to Courage Center.  “Courage Center is very big on working people back into the community so they can function as human beings, as they are,” said Seymour. “They’re people first, not a disabled person, but a person with a disability. It just seemed like the right fit. And it’s helping me out too.”

Human Race Hero

Seymour’s running accomplishments alone are worthy of admiration. But what she’s done with her life since her elite running days ended and how she’s faced and overcome obstacles in her life are all part of what led The Sporting Life to choose Seymour as this year’s Human Race Hero. “It’s a fabulous idea. I do feel like it’s one of the best awards I’ve ever gotten,” said Seymour. “It’s going to mean something. I’m thrilled.”
Seymour (right) accepted her 2003 Human Race Hero award from long-time friend and Club Sota teammate, Laurie King(left).

For the fundraising aspect of the Human Race Heroes program Seymour wanted to direct the money raised to Courage Center’s Sports and Recreation Department. “Because I think my running played such a big key in my recovery and as a part of who I am. It has so much to offer people in general,” said Seymour. “I want to help other people with injuries.

“Sports can add so much to your life and you can learn so much from it and gain so much from it. I learned a lot of how balance plays a big part,” said Seymour. “I’ve seen kids who’ve had brain injuries, head injuries, brain tumors and yet there’s so much they can still do in sports and athletics. Courage Center offers a great way to regain a lot of those skills.

“Physical activity is a key. I think that’s a vital part of the development of humans in general,” said Seymour. “It should at least be offered to those with disabilities.”

Her Human Race History

Although Seymour did not spend much of her running career on the roads - she was a track and cross country runner first - she does have fond memories of The Human Race. “I loved that race. I loved the original course that went straight to downtown St. Paul,” said Seymour. “It came at a great time of year. It was the end of the indoor season. I was always fit but between competitive seasons.”
photo courtesy: The Sporting Life
Her Human Race achievements include:
  • 2 overall women's championships (1987 and 1988)
  • 1 second-place finish (1989)
  • 3 third-place finishes (1990, 1991, 1993)
  • 5 of the 18 fastest 8K times ever run by a woman in Minnesota
  • Minnesota women's 8K record, 25:45 (1988)
  • 3 Minnesota individual age records for 8K (ages 26, 27, 32)

The Big Race

A bit sheepishly Seymour remembers calling Race Director Chris Fuller the day before that now-famous race in1988. She asked him if there could possibly be bonus money if a woman ran under 26:00 minutes. He wholeheartedly agreed, thinking that would be great incentive, but now admits he didn’t believe she would do it. "No one had been running that fast and she wasn't a 5-mile runner. She was a 3,000 meter runner," recalled Fuller.

“As I was crossing that finish line and saw 25:35 I thought ‘oh my god!’ But there’s something about that time in my life where nothing was quite good enough. I’d always be looking at others and see how great they’re doing,” said Seymour. “But now to see what I accomplished; well, I did okay.”

An understatement at best. With her tremendous accomplishments as an athlete and a person, even Fran Tarkenton would be proud.

[For more information read: "Was It Really A Choice? Hero Stands Tall," my personal musings on Seymour.]

Was It Really A Choice? Hero Stands Tall

We all make choices in our life: choices about how to spend out time, who to spend it with, and what activities and events are worthwhile to us. But what about those times when something chooses us, rather than the other way around?

It may surprise many of you to know that Leslie Seymour’s first sport of choice was not running. It was, in fact, flag football. This is something that I learned in a very recent conversation with her. Leslie came to running in a somewhat roundabout way – it, with the help of a well-intentioned high school coach, chose her. This surprised me because when I first knew Leslie, she was an amazing runner and I couldn’t have imagined that she wasn’t born to this sport.

When Leslie was named this year's Human Race Hero it evoked memories of my early running career and the people I looked up to. (Here's where I revert to being an awestruck 17-year-old, so please bear with me.) I was in my freshman year at the U of Minnesota in the mid 1980s. Many times when we had indoor track meets this group of amazing 'older' women athletes (they were in their mid to late 20s, after all) came into the Fieldhouse and seemed to take over all the Open meets we hosted.

They were women from the original, and inimitable, Club Sota team. These women, and, at times, men, qualified for Olympic Trials, National and World Championships, all while going to school, holding down jobs, starting families, etc.

To me Club Sota at that time was synonymous with Leslie Seymour. What she lacked in stature, at only 5'2", she more than made up for with power and speed. She was, in a word: amazing. An amazing athlete and an amazing competitor.

I remember the spectators in the Fieldhouse, and later in the spring at Bierman Field, erupting in applause when Leslie would take the baton for the second time during one 4x400 relay – blowing away all of the younger collegiate teams in the process. Maybe it wasn't technically 'legal' under international rules to have one person run two non-consecutive legs of a relay, but what a sight it was. All of use younger athletes were left with our mouths agape as we gasped to recover from our one measly 400 meter run. She made it look so easy.

I also was a regular spectator each March at The Human Race along Summit Avenue. I came to watch all of the amazing athletes  – from the winners to the last walkers to cross the finish line. But I really came for another glimpse of Leslie and her Club Sota teammates. On the road, as on the track, she made it look easy.

A few years later I would actually meet Leslie at a party. And it turned out she was a regular human being. In fact, she was quite an interesting person who actually had more to talk about than just running. I was still in awe as now she was beginning the next aspect of her life – she had recently started medical school.

It was just a few years later when all of Leslie's plans for the future would be put on hold, perhaps indefinitely. I remember the weekend of her car accident – it was October 1994. The accident happened in the middle of the day on a Saturday. I first heard about it early on Sunday morning. At that point, doctors didn't even know if Leslie would come through. It was a scary and uncertain time.

But Leslie did pull through and it's the fighting spirit she displayed – in her racing, in medical school and later as she lay in the Intensive Care Unit at a local hospital – that led The Sporting Life to choose her as this year's Human Race hero. A well-deserved honor for a very special person.

Leslie can now talk about how she chose to return some rental movies that ill-fated morning, as she was on her way to meet her sister. We'll never know how life could have been different for her had she chosen otherwise. But choices are what life is about.

A year or so ago, Leslie attended a few Team USA Minnesota meetings. I was floored when she introduced herself an none of today's star runners seemed to know who she was. But it's not their fault. It's the fault of those of us who have committed ourselves to telling stories of significant people and events in this running community. I guess we just haven't told Leslie's story in awhile. I am not hoping to help rectify that situation by telling the story of someone I admire and looked up to in so many ways over the years. I hope you will join me in looking back on the career of an incredible athlete while also admiring the continuing courage of an incredible person.
[For more information on Seymour, please read: "Life’s Journey has held many Twists and Turns for this Hero," my 2003 profile of Leslie Seymour.]