She looks like the nerdy waif who sat next to you in seventh
grade, a tiny person with stringy blond hair and small, wonkish
eyeglasses. In reality, 5'2 1/2", 93-pound Romanian Gabriela Szabo
is a 24-year-old woman, and in a footrace she will cut your heart
out with the most devastating finish in the sport. Four years ago
Szabo earned a silver medal in the 1,500 meters. Since then she
has been the most consistent woman in the world at distances from
1,500 through 5,000. She comes to Sydney as a solid favorite in
the 5,000 and a threat to double five days later in the 1,500,
which would enable her to take home a medal haul that weighs
almost as much as she does.
She was even smaller when, as a 13-year-old schoolgirl in her
Transylvanian hometown of Bistrita, she ran in an informal
600-meter race and won by a huge margin. "My school sports
teacher said to me after the race, 'Please come back tomorrow,'"
recalls Szabo. Two summers later Szabo won the European junior
3,000 title championship. Three years after that she had a Nike
contract, an agent and a full-time track career. "It is what I
had dreamed of every time I went out running," says Szabo.
In nearly all her victories Szabo hangs doggedly with the
front-runners and then destroys them in the final 400. "I have
always been fast at the end," she says. That kick has given her a
good life, albeit a peripatetic one. She married her coach, Zsolt
Gyongyossy, last fall, and they spend less than two months each
year in Romania. The rest of the time is spent training in places
as disparate as the Netherlands and South Africa and traveling to
meets around the world, all the while improving her English by
watching CNN and reading Jane Austen. "My home is in my
suitcase," she says.
No problem, as long as she leaves room in it for a little gold.
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER