by J.A. Adande
On a track in Palm Springs, a 58-year-old woman takes her first steps on an improbable journey to the Olympics, guided by one of the central figures in one of the most unforgettable Olympic images.Two chances at Athens. One unwanted, one unlikely. But inside of 330 days until the 2004 Games, Karch Kiraly and Bonnie Frankel are reminders of what the Olympics can — and should — be about.Kiraly won gold medals with the U.S. indoor team in 1984 and 1988. He teamed with Kent Steffes to win the gold medal in the inaugural Olympic beach volleyball competition in 1996.He and partner Brent Doble will compete in the FIVB Olympic qualifying tournament that begins at the Home Depot Center today, and if they do well enough and rack up enough qualifying points, he just might have to continue.He has good memories of the 1996 Atlanta Games, when they turned trucked-in sand and temporary bleachers in the middle of Georgia into a happening beach party.”For somebody who loves his sport, we’re proud to give volleyball a big shot in the arm,” Kiraly said. “It’s also a great sense of personal satisfaction, knowing how hard we worked and all the thousands of hours we put in to try to be the best in the world in the world’s biggest sports forum, where more people are watching than any other event.”
A shoulder injury cost Kiraly a shot at the 2000 Sydney Games, but three years later he’s still on the circuit, still enjoying himself — and enjoying success. He and Doble are ranked second on the AVP tour.
“I’m really proud of the fact that, even though I’m the oldest player, I’m giving the other players all they can handle,” Kiraly said. “And I started tournaments before some of those top players were even born. I’ve always admired athletes that can be great over a long period of time, and I’m trying to do that too. I’m really enjoying myself as the old guy, but still feeling really good physically and playing good volleyball.”
He’s playing so well that he won’t rule out another Olympic run, which would require him and Doble to compete in World Olympic Qualification tournaments around the world.
But he has a chance to work in Athens as a TV analyst, and after two decades of international competition, he sounds as if he’d rather take the path that would let him stay with his wife and two sons.
“We’re just at a point in our lives where I don’t want to spend a lot of time away from my family,” Kiraly said. “I did that for years and years on the U.S. indoor team and in trying to qualify for the last Olympics in beach volleyball.
“I don’t have big aspirations to play in the Olympics. We’ll have to see what happens.”
Bonnie Frankel isn’t waiting to see what happens. She’s pounding down a track in the morning, before the desert heat becomes overbearing, before she goes to work at Starbucks.
She’s used to long battles.
She’s endured her mother’s suicide, breast cancer and a divorce.
She keeps running even though she had avuncular necrosis — the hip ailment that cut short Bo Jackson’s athletic career — and has an artificial hip.
She fought the NCAA and won, overturning a rule that stipulated athletes must complete their eligibility within five years of first enrolling in college. In 1991 Frankel went to Loyola Marymount and wanted to compete for the cross-country team, but was deemed ineligible because she had attended Santa Monica College for one semester in 1967. She won an addition to the thick NCAA guidebook that is nicknamed the “Bonnie Clause,” which waives the five-year rule for women who enrolled in college prior to the beginning of NCAA national championship competition in 1982.
She wants to keep running.
Frankel first ran with the Santa Monica Track Club in the late 1980s under Tommie Smith, the 1968 Olympic 200-meter gold medalist.
Smith and the bronze-medal winner, John Carlos, raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to protest the treatment of African Americans in the United States. It remains one of the enduring photographs from the 1960s.
Now Carlos is helping Frankel train for her shot at the Olympics, after a mutual friend brought them together.
“The thing that brought me out is her desire,” Carlos said. “I was telling her, there’s something about you. I don’t normally come out and do something like this.”
Carlos had been in coaching retirement, with a job running the in-school suspension program at Palm Springs High.
When Frankel first told Carlos about her plans, “Quite naturally I looked at her and told her, ‘That’s a wild dream,’ ” Carlos said. “I sat back, gave some thought to it, went out there and said I’ll help her so she can be the best she can be.”
For now he has her at the track at 7 a.m., running five miles a day five times a week. In three months she’ll begin work on specific events, either the 800 meters or the 1,500 meters.
To qualify for the Olympic trials, she would have to run the 800 meters in a time of 2 minutes 1 second or better, and/or the 1,500 in 4 minutes 10 seconds or better in a sanctioned event by July 1.
If recently “unretired” Edwin Moses has limited expectations about returning to his gold-medal hurdling form at 48, what makes Frankel believe she can reach new heights at 58?
“I know I can do it,” Frankel said. “You give me something, and I’ll do the best I can. Do I think it’s going to be easy? No. But I don’t like easy. Easy is lazy.”
Lazy won’t get you anywhere. Frankel might not get to Athens, but she believes she is moving in the right direction.
“Every person has to look to themself and see what their destiny is,” Frankel said. “I don’t expect people to do my goals, but any little goal in moving your body is so much healthier for your whole being.”
She has seen her body turn against her with cancer, and she once tried to take her life with an overdose of sleeping pills.
So she knows about second chances, about opportunity, about a gift Kiraly could understand as well. Frankel calls it, “The privilege to try again.”
J.A. Adande can be reached at email@example.com
Copyright © 2003, The Los Angeles Times