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Big problems for Little F

Francie Larrieu had world records to break, the AAU to fight, a Russian rival to keep an eye on—and a comic tendency to trip and fall down

Little Francie Larrieu had a lot on her mind. First, there was this thing with the AAU. Here she was, along with Mary Decker one of the sensations of women's indoor track, knocking off world records almost faster than they could be compiled, yet when the AAU invited her to its indoor championships in New York last month it did not offer enough travel money to cover expenses from her home in Sunnyvale, Calif. Her track club—the powerful Pacific Coast Club—decided to skip the AAU meet entirely, and Francie went instead to the K. of C. indoor meet in Winnipeg.

Then there was the matter of the world cross-country championships in Italy later this month. Francie is the best the U.S. has, and she wants to go. But the AAU budget for housing, feeding and transporting the six girls on the team is only $5,000. Ken Foreman, the coach, figured that the team could save $1,200 on air fare if the four girls who were under 23 (which includes Francie) would fly to Europe from Canada to take advantage of youth fares there. But the girls would have to pay their own way to Canada.

O.K., athletes generally don't like to pay their own way but, shoot, it's not the money. Francie could always sell her 1965 Volkswagen, or pawn her medals or go into debt to help out Uncle Sam. "I want to go badly," the pretty, 21-year-old Olympian said. "I'm No. 1 and I'm in great shape. I should run. But it just isn't right. Why should I have to pay $180 in air fare when I'm a member of a United States team? It's ridiculous. Somebody has to stand up and protest."

And there were matters of more immediate concern, Ludmilla Bragina for one. She's the Russian who won the 1,500 meters at Munich, a strong, tough competitor who has run that distance in 4:01.4 outdoors, faster than any woman ever. Bragina was having her problems, too. Two weeks before, in Toronto, while Francie was winning the 1,500 in world indoor record time of 4:12.2, the Russian finished a distant sixth.

That was Francie's fourth world record this indoor season. Earlier she had set a 4:34.6 mark in the mile at Seattle, and then had knocked an astonishing 32.6 seconds off the two-mile world standard at San Diego, winning in 9:39.4. During the two-mile run she sped past the 3,000-meter mark in 9:02.4, another record. Still, the day before they met in Winnipeg, she watched as the Russian girl, sitting two tables away, lunched on a steak. Francie frowned. "I wonder if she was just setting me up at Toronto," she mused, trying not to stare at Ludmilla. "I don't know. Would anyone run sixth just to make me relax? She wouldn't, would she?"

Bragina finished her lunch and on her way out of the restaurant stopped at Francie's table. She has a plain but pleasant face, and a warm smile.

"How your times?" she asked, touching Francie's hand.

"Very good. I had a 9:39.4 for two miles, but it was real easy. I lapped the field once and some of them twice, and as I lapped them I was able to pull on them." Francie's words flowed quickly. The Russian girl nodded approvingly and left.

Francie's brown eyes followed Bragina out of the restaurant. Then she frowned at her omelet. "I wish I knew if she understood me. When I first met her she couldn't speak a word of English. Do you think it's my fault—that I never learned to speak Russian?" When the omelet didn't answer, Francie ate it.

Her final fret in Winnipeg was the weight of the American flag, which the Canadian officials had asked her to carry in an opening ceremony. Francie thought George Woods, the 300-pound shotputter, might be better suited. "I'm kind of weak," she argued. "I've kind of neglected my weight training. Oh, well, how heavy can it be?" And so, with all that on her mind, when she stepped off the track, she slipped on a patch of exposed ice and fell heavily on her rear. All she could do for a moment was lie there and laugh.

"You klutz," she said, shaking her head. "Leave it to Larrieu. Why didn't somebody tell me that when they put a track over a hockey rink, they don't cover up all the ice? But I guess if I didn't fall down, it wouldn't be me. I fell down some stairs just before the Sunkist meet and I was black and blue for a week."

Life has been like that for Francie Larrieu, one fall after another, some more serious than others, but she always manages to pick herself up with a grin. The sixth of nine children, she was made aware of the track scene by her older brother Ron, a distance runner on the 1964 Olympic team. Then, when she read about the Junior Olympics on the back of a box of Wheaties, she decided she wanted to compete, too. She was 13.

She joined a track club in Santa Clara, Calif., and her first race was a 220, which went off without her. "I was just wandering around," she recalled with amusement, "and when they announced the race, I didn't understand. My coach was slightly upset. But I was also entered in a 660, the slowest of two heats, and I won."

In 1969 she qualified for her first U.S. team, in the 1,500 meters, and they asked her to prove she was a girl. She asked them if they were blind.

"I was only 16, and it was embarrassing," she said. She has been tested four times: twice for the Pan-Pacific Games, once for the Olympics and, last year, for the World University Games in Moscow.

"Everybody has to be tested, so I go along," she said. "I kept asking for a certificate of proof, but they never gave me one. Finally, last year, the Russians gave me one. Now I carry it everywhere. The only trouble is it's in Russian. Nobody can read it."

Quickly she became the darling of the distance runners—when she was healthy, which wasn't often. If she didn't have a cold, she had the flu. In 1971 she pushed herself too far. She was ill, but she ran a qualifying race for the Russian-American dual meet in Berkeley, and performed poorly.

"I knew I shouldn't have run," she said, "but my mother and father had never seen me in a major race, and Berkeley would have been close enough for them to make the trip." After another crosscountry defeat, someone clipped the story of the race from a newspaper and mailed it to her. Across the top was scrawled, "No more worry about F. L." It was unsigned.

"I tried to ignore it," she said, "but it blew my mind. That and losing." She sighed and shook her head. "I know better now. But I was young then. I couldn't get my mind together. I almost quit." She still has the clipping.

She was a student for a while at DeAnza Junior College in California, but left and went to work in a laundry. She trained hard, but the early spark was gone. In March 1972 her coach, Augie Argabright of the San Jose Cindergals, talked her into running in an international cross-country meet in Seattle. Argabright crossed his fingers. He told her he wanted her there to lend support to Jackie Dixon, a teammate.

"I didn't think there was any way she could have the proper mental attitude," Argabright said, "and I didn't think she could stay up with the other girls."

It was a 2½-mile race and Francie ran the entire distance yelling encouragement to Jackie Dixon, who finished eighth. After it was over, she realized that she had finished 15th in a field of 31 of the best women distance runners in the country. "It's coming back," she said, "but I better hurry if I'm going to make the Olympic team."

She hurried. She ran away from everyone in the U.S. in the 1,500 meters and qualified easily for the Olympic team. "And I got into that Jesus thing," she said. "A real religious kick. Prayer, reading the Bible. It lasted until I finished eighth in the semi-final at Munich. I figured then that what I needed was more experience and less praying."

Until this season, Francie had looked upon indoor track almost as a chore, something that had to be done to prepare for the outdoor races. But suddenly, and despite training on a cross-country diet of a lot of miles (100 a week) and no speed work, she began burning up the boards. She was stunned. Now when she talks about running indoors, it's with a feeling of excitement.

"For the first time I can feel the vibrations of the crowd," she said. "And I can feel myself responding to them. I just keep running faster."

In Winnipeg, Francie went for the vibes right away. But starting from the inside lane, she nearly collided with a camera-happy official. She threw herself sideways, just missing the man. "I was going for the lead, and he got there first," she said later.

But before the first lap was done, Francie had the lead and began setting a blistering pace. Her rivals, including the Russian, began to fade. Halfway through the race, Francie was far out in front, running alone. At the three-quarter mark she listened for her time, but heard only the crowd. She did not know how far behind the others were, so she held back, waiting for a challenge.

In the infield of the track Dwight Stones, the high jumper who sometimes wears a BIG D on the back of his T shirt, began to yell at Francie, who wears a LITTLE F on her shirt.

"Record time, Little F," Stones yelled. She had turned the three-quarters in excellent time. "Keep those arms up. Turn it on."

Francie didn't hear him, either, and coasted home in 4:14.9, a few seconds off her world record. "Oh, no," she moaned later. "If I had known the time I really would have gone. I kept listening, but I couldn't hear anything." Then she burst out laughing. "Did you see me tripping? I was tripping the whole way. I could see myself falling again in front of all those people."

Stones, who holds the world outdoor high-jump record, came jogging up. "Little F, you're just about as great as me."

Francie cocked her head. "Big D, how many indoor world records do you hold?"

"None," said Stones. "Just one outdoors."

"Well, then," said Francie. "Indoors you're almost as great as me. I've got four."

"O.K.," said Stones, "now let's go back to the hotel and dance." They did. And sometime early Sunday morning Francie's feet became tangled during a complicated step and she nearly fell again.

"Oh, damn," she said, looking up at Big D.