Top Sprinter Evelyn Ashford's Longest Race Is to Reach the 1984 Olympics

updated 06/22/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

America's fastest female is back in stride

As this nation's swiftest woman ever, sprinter Evelyn Ashford seemed poised in early 1980 to claim the fame that comes with a fistful of Olympic gold. But then Jimmy Carter engineered the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games. "I felt terrible," recalls Evelyn, "as if I didn't have a soul left." Nor, soon, her health—that spring at an L.A. meet, a mid-race hamstring pull left Ashford crumpled on the track. Aware that sprinters are let out to pasture earlier than most mortals, Evelyn, who is 24, pondered retirement.

Instead, she has opted for "a comeback from feeling hurt and down." So far Ashford happily likens the experience to "pouring water into an empty pitcher." Outfitted in a sleek and innovative (for track) body suit that was suggested by speed skater Eric Heiden's gear and that keeps Ashford's muscles warm and relaxed, she has already smashed six meet records. The acid test, though, comes this week in Sacramento, at qualifying trials for the World Cup in Rome next September. Evelyn has more in mind than a place on the team: "I've beaten the best," she says, referring to the two East Germans who hold the all-time 100-and 200-meter marks, "but I don't have any world records. I have to have world records."

Though her 1980 travails cost Ashford nearly a year in that pursuit, she sees them as a disguised blessing. "I had quit school and quit my job in order to eat, sleep and live track," she explains. "My injury wasn't severe, but along with the Olympic boycott it killed my incentive. So my husband and I took the summer off and did a lot of thinking together. I came back with a different outlook." Most important, reports Ashford, was realizing that "I can't run forever. I decided to go back to school for my degree, because I know now there's more to life than track."

Evelyn's former compulsion may have arisen because she came to sprinting late. A Shreveport, La.-born Air Force brat who was raised with three sisters and a brother at bases in the U.S., Africa and Okinawa, she didn't take up track until her senior year at Roseville (Calif.) High. "I started running against the boys at lunchtime," she says, "and I'd win all the time, so everybody decided I should go out for the team." Her performances on the boys' squad led to a scholarship from UCLA, where coach Pat Connolly (second wife of ex-Olympian hammer thrower Hal) spotted her. Pat, who still coaches Ashford gratis, encouraged the freshman to try for the 1976 Olympics, and at 19, in only her second competitive season, Evelyn ran fifth in the 100 meters in Montreal. Her subsequent improvement included setting more than a dozen national sprint records. Because she is the only American female to have run 100 meters in under 11 seconds and 200 meters in less than 22 seconds, Ashford was a preboycott favorite to become the first U.S. woman since Wilma Rudolph in 1960 to collect gold medals in both those events.

In her disappointment, Evelyn turned to husband Ray Washington, 26, a former basketball player at L.A. Valley College and Cal State whom she married in 1978. They live in a six-room home in Los Angeles, where Ray is a suburban recreation supervisor and Ashford is enrolled at Cal State. "I want to combine a business major with studies in clothing and textiles," says Evelyn, because she's "interested in one day having a dress shop. And I also want to be a mother. But that's my future-future goal."

Her immediate aim? "To keep running fast and keep winning," says Ashford. For how long? Though sometimes "I think, 'Let's just take it a year at a time,' " Evelyn admits she "would like to be the darling of the Olympics in 1984."

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