Saturday, March 1, 2003

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.]

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