She can laugh now. Maria Mutola can stretch across the plush
carpet in the living room of her immaculate ranch house in
Eugene, Ore., surrounded by trophies and ribbons and gifts from
no less than the president of her native Mozambique, and she can
laugh about the journey that brought her to the U.S. more than
five years ago.
She was put on a plane in the capital city of Maputo, and from
there she flew to Paris. That was the easy part. None of the
other Mozambicans on the flight were going to Chicago, so none
of them could accompany her on the shuttle bus or help her find
her connecting gate. She spoke neither English nor French. She
had five hours to find her flight, and she needed the full five
hours. From Chicago she flew to San Francisco and from there to
Eugene, where on the night of March 3, 1991, she arrived in a
cold rain like she had never felt before. "She was overwhelmed,
intimidated and frightened," recalls Laurie Burke, a high school
track coach who was among those who met her at the airport that
"I was by myself," says Mutola, waving her arms as if amazed
that she didn't somehow land in Oslo or Tucson instead. Her
brown eyes dance in the light, and her voice squeaks in shrill
Mutola went to Eugene as an 18-year-old high school student on
an Olympic Solidarity Scholarship, which is given by the
International Olympic Committee to athletes from developing
nations. She is the favorite to win the 800 meters on Monday
night (her semifinal heat is tonight at Olympic Stadium) and has
a chance in the 1,500-meter final on Aug. 3 to become the first
woman since the Soviet Union's Tatyana Kazankina in 1976 to win
the 800 and the 1,500 in the same Games. Mutola is only 23, yet
she sits on the cusp of greatness, unbeaten in the 800 meters
for almost four years. She is the most famous athlete in her
homeland, giving hope to an impoverished nation that has never
had an Olympic medal winner.
You hear often of Olympic journeys: from defeat to victory, from
illness to health, from hopelessness to success. Every gold
medal is woven into the cloth of international drama. There is
no contrivance to Mutola's tale, a true journey of the mind, the
body and the spirit.
It began in the spring of 1988, on the dirt-covered streets of
Macelala, a neighborhood outside the center of Maputo. Mutola,
15, the sixth and youngest child of Joao and Catarina Mutola,
had already shown enough athletic ability to earn a spot on a
boys' soccer club and had even scored a game-winning goal. She
went to Macelala to play unorganized soccer games with some of
those same boys.
Among those who watched was renowned Mozambican poet Jose
Craveirinha, a learned, soulful man whose writings helped fill
the nation's cultural void during a 17-year civil war that
didn't end until 1992. Craveirinha is often called Mozambique's
poet laureate. He is also a passionate supporter of Mozambique's
largely untapped athletic talent. In Mutola he saw a fast,
powerful girl who might someday represent his nation in the
Olympics. "Please forgive me," says Craveirinha, 74. "I take
pride in my ability to spot talent. I could tell that Maria
deLurdes Mutola would be good at running."
He approached Mutola in the street and the next day introduced
her to his son, Stleo, a track and field coach. They gave Mutola
a pair of training shoes and two pairs of spikes, and nursed her
through six days of easy distance running. On the seventh day
they sent her to the track, for a session of 300- and 400-meter
intervals. "The next day my whole body was sore," says Mutola.
For more than a week she stayed away from Stleo's club. Stleo
told his father, who in turn visited Mutola's family. Her father
worked as a railroad clerk; her mother raised vegetables to sell
at a city market. The Mutolas were a lower-middle-class family
by Mozambique's minimal standards but poor by most others, and
Craveirinha sold the family on Maria's future. "She's yours,"
said Joao to Craveirinha. He thanked the family and left to find
Maria walking near the house. Craveirinha offered her a ride to
his home, and there he showed her tapes of the 1984 Olympics. "I
had never seen such a crowd in a stadium for track and field,"
says Maria. Soon thereafter she was back in spikes. Just months
after her first workout she represented Mozambique at the 1988
Seoul Olympics, finishing seventh in an 800-meter heat more than
a month before her 16th birthday.
Yet even as Mutola improved, Jose and Stleo knew that she would
ultimately be stifled by Mozambique's lack of athletic
structure. "It is truly a sad thing," says Jose. "We have so
many great athletes, but we have a culture that doesn't support
sports. I had to send her to America because that was where she
would improve the most."
Jose set in motion the complex political mechanics for moving
Mutola, who thought about her homeland and what the future might
bring. Mozambique in the '80s was a barren, hostile country.
Located on the southeast coast of Africa, it is among the
world's poorest nations. The civil war began when Mutola was
four. "It was dangerous to be in a car and go somewhere," she
recalls. "There was a point of no return, where you might not
get home safely. I went back after the war ended. I saw burned
buildings and cars and trees. It was very scary. The country is
better now but still terrible."
No wonder that the decision to accept an Olympic Solidarity
Scholarship was not a difficult one. There would be loneliness
and fear, but there was no other choice but to leave. Mutola
arrived in Eugene in that stinging rain. "I liked the idea, but
as soon as I got there, it became too much for me," she recalls.
She struggled with the language, with the cold weather and with
peers at Springfield High (across the Willamette River from
Eugene), who were only slightly younger in age yet vastly
younger in life experience than she was. "They were still
worried about proms and what to do on their weekends," says
Margo Jennings, who along with her former husband, Jeff Fund,
has coached Mutola since her arrival in Eugene. "She was miles
ahead of them emotionally." There were bureaucratic fights over
her scholastic athletic eligibility, public spats that made her
even more visible than she already was as one of the few
minority students in the school. (She was never eligible in
track, but she won the Oregon girls' cross-country title in
1991, two months after finishing fourth in the 800 meters at the
World Championships in Tokyo, a bizarre double, indeed.) There
was the halting, surprised reaction to her powerful physique.
"They were in awe of her, even the boys," says Burke, who
coached track and cross-country at Springfield.
Mutola lived with Doug Abramson, a supervisor with the Lane
County Highway Department; his wife, Judy; and their children,
Melissa (who was 14 when Mutola arrived) and Josh (who was 10).
The Abramsons learned to eat mountains of rice and little beef;
Maria learned to laugh at movies she didn't understand.
Amid all the adjustments, Mutola blossomed into the best women's
800-meter runner in the world. "She is one very strong woman,"
says Jennings. Bob Crites, a former investment broker who was
working as a guidance counselor at a Eugene middle school,
became her agent, helping her earn more than $250,000 a year (a
portion of which is sent to her family in Mozambique). Fund and
Jennings have guided Mutola through five years of low-mileage
(seldom more than 35 miles a week), high-quality workouts. In
August 1994 in Zurich, she ran her best time in the 800,
1:55.19, and last summer she broke the world 1,000 record by
running 2:29.34 in Brussels.
However, there have been huge disappointments. After challenging
for the lead in the 800 at the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, she
faded to fifth. She won the 800 at the 1993 World Championships
in Stuttgart and was the favorite at last year's Worlds in
Goteborg, Sweden, but she was disqualified for stepping on the
lane line early in her semifinal race.
When the disqualification was announced, Mutola dropped to her
knees on the track and wailed. However, less than a week later
in Zurich, she crushed Goteborg 800 winner Ana Quirot of Cuba,
and the 1,000 record fell soon after that. Both Mutola and
Jennings suggest that she can challenge the 800-meter world
record of 1:53.28, set in 1983 by Jarmila Kratochvilova of
Czechoslovakia. It is a record viewed by some as untouchable
because of the speculated doping of Eastern bloc athletes of
that vintage. Moreover, Mutola is only beginning to grow into
the 1,500. "I think you'll see a dominant 1,500-meter runner by
the end of this summer," says Jennings.
There are many ways to measure the journey. Mutola is a tough,
seasoned athlete at the top of her event. "She's the one I think
about when I'm training," says U.S. veteran 800-meter runner
Joetta Clark. Mutola is a mature woman who has outgrown her
discomfort with U.S. society; she now prefers dresses to sweats
in public. But what she did last October is most illustrative of
For several years, whenever Mutola would return to her homeland,
her niece Catarina would beg to go with her to the U.S. "She
would cry so much," says Mutola. Catarina Mutola, 14, is the
daughter of Maria's 28-year-old brother, Carlos, and a woman who
died of malaria in 1991. Several years ago Maria's parents
adopted Catarina, and in October, Maria moved her to Eugene.
Next fall she will enter the seventh grade, and she is thriving.
"I thought it would be good to help her," says Mutola. "Somebody
helped me once."
Upon hearing this news, the old poet laughs into the telephone,
sending joy across the miles. He says there will not be a party
if Mutola wins a gold medal. "There will be a festival," says
Craveirinha. He was first moved to write about track and field
by the great performances at the 1968 Mexico City Games. He
lives in a country scarred by war. Craveirinha has been writing
words for more than five decades, and he is asked if he has
written a poem about Mutola. Or if he will write one soon.
"I cannot write about her," he says. "She is poetry itself, a
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Mutola could bring Mozambique its first olympic medal, in the 800 or even the 1,500. [Maria Mutola running with others]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Thankful for the help she received, Mutola reached out to her niece Catarina and moved her to Eugene. [Maria Mutola and Catarina Mutola]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Mutola has adjusted nicely to the American way of life and to her celebrity status. [Maria Mutola signing autograph in store]