Posted January 12, 2003

Anna Wlodarczyk, 51, (shown competing at Orono 2002 nationals) has been able to maintain her slim shape and incredible fitness since competing for Poland in the 1980 Olympics. If not for politics, she would have been a favorite for gold in the long jump at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Poland's gift to America: A
chat with Anna Wlodarczyk

Anna Wlodarczyk lives in Orange, California, a few blocks from where she works as track and cross country coach at Chapman University. It’s a small, private Division III school that offers no scholarships. “Recruiting athletes to the sport is difficult because we do not have track facilities,” says Wlodarczyk, pronounced Wo-DAR-zhik. Just as modest, the coach shows up at masters meets large and small, sprints down runways and dabbles in hurdles and heps. She then quietly takes home gold medals in any event she tries. At 5-foot-9 and 120 pounds, she’s in great shape. And clearly she’s world-class in her W50 age group. But she doesn’t flaunt her achievements. In fact, she was a Polish Olympian and friends with some of the legends of her generation, including Irena Szewinska. Her 1980 long jump competition, in fact, was judged among the top 100 of the century. This is her first online interview, conducted in December 2002.  

By Ken Stone In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, you were robbed of a medal in the long jump. Tatyana Kolpakova of the Soviet Union was red-flagged for a foot foul, but the Soviet judge changed his mind and raised a white flag. Polish officials refused to make an appeal on your behalf, and she went on to win gold. How different would your life be today had you won bronze instead of taking fourth at Moscow?

Anna Wlodarczyk: I do not think life would be different today because of what happened in the Moscow Olympics. Sports taught me how to deal with defeat and how to look towards the future for the next opportunity to win. Two weeks after the Olympics I beat Tatyana Kolpakova in Nice, France, and that summer I won the all  track meets in Europe.

After your countryman Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz won the pole vault in 1980, he gave the European version of the “up yours” salute to the jeering Moscow crowd. Was he doing it on your behalf as well?

Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz, Jacek Wszola (Montreal gold, Moscow bronze high jumper) and I had spent a lot of time together before the Olympic Games in 1980. We were the top-ranked athletes in the world and the Polish Track and Field Association created the best conditions for us for training, rest and proper nourishment. The last camp before Moscow the three of us and our coaches spent in the Italian Alps at an altitude of 1200m. I knew that Wladek was in great shape and with a little luck he could win the Olympics. The pole vault requires full concentration and cooperation from the audience and Wladek could not get that understanding from the crowd. This salute was a symbol of his winning despite difficulties. It can happen anywhere that audiences do not know how to behave. The best method is to separate yourself from the noise and interference.

In 1984, Poland joined the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Games and prevented you from competing in the Olympics, where the winning long jump matched your personal record. Then you beat the world’s best in Europe that summer and your national team (sport authorities) suspended you from unauthorized trips and competitions. You left for Holland, according to one account. What prompted you to move on to America? When did you arrive?

In 1984, after three hard years of training and dedication, I had the next chance to win an Olympic medal. I was a better long jumper than I was in 1980. I set the Polish national record of 6.96m and was ready to go to L.A. A month before the Los Angeles Olympics – with my uniform in hand and bags packed -- the Polish Olympic Committee announced on TV that Poland would not take part in the Olympic Games. Understandably I was a little bitter. I said to myself  “I worked for so many years for this and they didn’t give me a second chance.” After the OG, the USA athletes and the other nations medalists came to Europe to the few track meets that we call today the Euro Circuit. The first one was in Budapest, Hungary. The Polish national team could go to this meet, but we were not permitted to go to western Europe. I won the long jump in Budapest and beat Carl Lewis’ sister Carol with the result of 6.81m. A lot of top-ranked athletes came to Budapest. I watched the wonderful races with Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith Joyner.

I decided that I would go with them to the other track meets in western Europe. I was in excellent form and I wanted to prove it. Yes! I beat the world’s best in Europe that summer and when I came back to Poland I found out that a few of us were suspended for unauthorized trips. I’ve tried to explain to the sports authorities and the press that I was getting married to a Dutch citizen and that I was traveling with him to the track meets. But it did not help! At that point I was 33 years old and I thought that 14 years on the polish national team was a long time and I should finish my sports career and start a family. My last track meet was in February 1985 at the polish indoor nationals, where I won the national title and stepped down.

It took me five more years to decide on what to focus my life on to fulfill my dreams. I was a teacher at that time at the Academy of Physical Education in Warsaw/Poland (19 years) and at that point I wanted to dedicate my life towards research and teaching. I had completed my doctorate dissertation in physical education and I thought about continuing my research on the proper selection of talented children for track and field. In this way I also became a coach.

In 1989 I was with my university women’s and men’s track and field team in Heidelberg, Germany. My athletes won the competition against six nations and I got a lot of recognition as a woman coach. At that meet there were a few athletes from Azusa Pacific University, California, and they invited me to coach them for the Olympics, 1992 in Barcelona. I arrived in California on November 2, 1991. I was delighted with the sunny, warm weather (in November it was already cold in Poland) and wonderful facilities at APU and Citrus College. Meeting the top-ranked track athletes at APU made me feel great and I decided to settle in to stay.

Given your experience with Polish track authorities, why have you kept your Polish citizenship? Do you intend to become a U.S. citizen eventually?

My experience with the Polish track authorities has nothing to do with my move to America. I wanted to experience something new in life, learn something and this is why I decided to take a chance. I met wonderful people here in California and got a great opportunity for further development. Yes, I intend to become a U.S. citizen, but this is a long process and I have been following the steps that INS requires me to take. From the participation point of view, I do not want to change my nationality and I will represent my old country in the international meets.

Do you know Irena Szewinska very well? If so, have you stayed in touch with her? Would you encourage her to try masters track?

Yes, I know Irena Szewinska very well. Irena was always my idol -- a wonderful athlete. I wanted to follow and be like her one day. She was one of the best athletes ever in the history of the Olympics. Irena was in five Olympics (1964-1980) and she is still known in Poland as “the Queen of the track.” In Tokyo OG as an 18-year-old she won three medals -- a gold in the 4x100 relay, and two silvers in the 200m and long jump. She held the Polish record until 1980

During the track meet in 1973 in Warsaw, I beat her in the long jump and since then I was the No. 1 one long jumper for the next 13 years. After the Munich Games in 1972, Irena made a decision to compete in a new event – the 400m. With her natural speed, she soon became the first woman to run the 400 under 50 seconds. Irena is the president of  the Polish Track and Field Association and a member of the Polish Olympic Committee.

Yes, I have stayed in touch with her. We spent time together at a New Year’s Eve party in 1999/2000 in the Tatra Mountains, Poland. I tried to encourage her to compete in masters track, but she is too busy with her work and family life (she has two sons). She is working out on a regular basis to stay in shape and feel good.

Few track and field Olympians compete into their 50s. What motivates you?

That is true. Not too many Olympians want to sacrifice their whole life towards hard workouts which are demanding if you decide to stay at the top!

My life has had many hurdles (no pun intended) and one was the breakup with my Dutch fiancé in 1984 one month prior to our wedding. After going through that major disappointment in my life, I decided to focus again on track and field and put  my personal life on hold. The years have flown by and I have the time to compete now into my 50s. Unfortunately, a husband and children, are not sharing my time with my sports career. If  "Mr. Right" comes along one day, things may change, but for now I divide my time between my profession as a teacher/coach and my track career. 

Injuries are the other aspect which eliminates athletes from participation in sports. There are several reasons why I am motivated to compete. One of them is my profession as a coach.         

From the beginning of my stay in the U.S., I was working with college student-athletes, and the best way to grasp their attention (with lack of English language skills) was to show them drills and be in good shape. My first workplaces,  Azusa Pacific and Citrus College, gave me a lot of experiences. There I met some wonderful people. One of them, Lloyd Higgins (M60, great discus thrower) told me that the best way to mark my presence in this country is to compete and be recognized by the track and field community. A few days after my arrival he handed me the National Masters News and  encouraged me  to compete. I did not have funds to do this at that time, but I borrowed the money from my friend and flew to Spokane to compete in the U.S. nationals 1992. I won a few of the events with very good results and set that year  two world records for the W40 age group. Since that year until 2001 I was competing sporadically (only the nationals and Buffalo worlds) because I was too busy with my work and assimilation into the new environment.

Great motivation to participate in masters track came from other masters American athletes. I admire a few of them  that I met for their passion, enthusiasm, dedication and love of  track and field.  Getting older is not easy to accept and the preparations for the nationals or World Championships takes a lot of effort. The body does not recover as fast from the workout like it did 20 years ago, and it is easy to get injured. Masters athletes who decide to compete in track are winning something more than a medal!

From my perspective, I believe I made a good choice to be physically active. I feel great mentally and physically -- and with a careful approach, a little knowledge and attention to what my body is telling me, I can overcome many problems as I age. I am so enthusiastic about this discovery that you can postpone the process of getting older that I shared the news with my students and athletes. Every day I am trying to encourage them to take an action and stay in shape for the rest of their lives.

You had some tight races with masters Hall of Famer Phil Raschker at the 2002 Orono masters nationals -- beating her in the pentathlon hurdles but barely losing in the open race. Phil competes in the W55 group and you are in W50. What is Phil’s secret for such incredible dominance?

I met Phil for the first time in Turku, Finland, during the World Masters Championships in 1991 and since then I admire her as an athlete and a very friendly woman. She is so enthusiastic about our sport that a lot of us are inspired by her. For the past 15 years she was always a top-ranked athlete in the world in a lot of events. Her secret?  I can only assume with my sport-life experiences that hard work, discipline, commitment, consistency and good nutrition let her achieve this kind of amazing effect.

You competed in an era when East German and Soviet sports machines drugged their athletes. Were you aware at the time that some of your rivals had an unfair advantage? Are you in touch with any of these former East Bloc athletes today?

Yes, I was aware of the power of East Germany in sports. Watching their athletes at the meets I got some idea of the direction E. German scientists went to get such an incredible results. No! I was never in touch with the East German athletes. During the track meets in East Germany, I did not have a chance to get any info about the way they train. The door of DHFK facilities in Leipzig and Berlin were closed to us. It was a different story with the Soviet athletes -- they use to come to our Olympic Centers for 2-3 week camps and trained with us.

The No. 1 component and strength of the East Bloc success in sports was their perfect organization, selection and hard work. We used to train 3-4 times per day. The sports authority gave the top-ranked athletes the opportunity to focus only on sports and we spent long weeks at the camps in Warsaw, Spala and Zakopane. Polish Olympic Centers were open for athletes from all over the world and we trained together.

I belonged to the athletes who had aspirations to achieve something more then a sport-career. After I got my master’s degree in physical education from the Warsaw Academy of Physical Education, I decided to continue my career at my alma mater as a teacher and researcher. During all these years of central training and camps, I did not feel any pressure from the coaches or medical staff to use illegal drugs. Only basic multivitamin-mineral supplements were given to us at the camps.

When you competed for Poland at the Brisbane WMA world meet, did you teammates treat you with any special deference because you had been to the Olympic Games?

No! I did not see any special deference. My Polish and American teammates have some respect for my accomplishments as an Olympian, but I see them as a group of wonderful people who have something unique to offer me. I am inspired by a lot of them and this mutual admiration keeps us going and enjoying track.

You’ve set world records in the W40 and W50 triple jump and have won several world WMA titles. Do you masters honors mean as much as your awards during your elite career?

The awards I get as a master athlete today have a different meaning for me than 20-30 years ago. It is a mixture of triumph that my body still cooperates with me and a mental and physical high.

In June 2002, you won age group USATF National Masters Heptathlon Championships in Trenton, New Jersey, with the highest score (5,990) of all women competing, including Phil Raschker. Is this your best event of the future? Are you shooting for Phil’s W50 record of 6,469 points?

I do not know. It depends on how much time I have left to focus on my own training. My priority is my job as a coach and a teacher at Chapman University. Coaching cross country and track and field teams takes a lot of my time and energy.  Because of being new in this country, every day I face challenges and tasks I have to perform first, before I do my own training. Heptathlon requires a big volume of training and I don’t want to push beyond my limits and lose the control over other things.

Are you related to Poland’s Urszula Wlodarczyk, who was fourth in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic heptathlons? If yes, do you consult her for advice?

Urszula is somehow related to me, but I did not have a chance to talk to her about it. She was naturally a much stronger athlete than me and heptathlon was the perfect match for her. I did not see her competing this year. I can assume that she finished her sports career.

At Chapman University, you’ve been coach of the cross country teams and women’s track teams for about 10 years. What do your athletes think of your masters achievements? Do you train with them?

My men’s and women’s cross country team totals 15-20 people and the women’s track and field program is also small. My athletes know that I am a good athlete and that I am enthusiastic to have them. I train with them every day and I inspire them somehow! Usually I tell them: “We don’t have facilities, but if I can do it and win at age 51 you can do it too!”  I also have a great support from the head coach, Al Siddons, at Santa Ana College. He allows me to use his all-weather track for my own and my athletes workouts. Thanks to people like Al, I can feel that we can accomplish something and keep track and field alive.

You also are listed in tennis results on the Web. How do this sport complement your masters track career?

Yes, I am playing tennis for fun.  I am a member of the Polish Tennis Club in Southern California. I am also involved with the Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club. Meeting Polish people here in California has a special meaning for me. Most of the club’s members are unique, successful people and socializing with them gives me a lot of pleasure. The Modjeska Art and Culture Club invites famous Polish people from all over the world to share their  accomplishments with us.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? Any other interests or hobbies besides sports and coaching?

I don’t have too much time left. If I have, I travel visiting my old friends and meeting new ones all over the world. I am always curious about the world and I love to read.

How long will you continue competing? What are your goals for 2003, which includes a world masters meet in Puerto Rico?

I will compete as long as my body will allow me to do so and it will not interfere with my job. I will focus mainly on the nationals and worlds. If I am ready for these meets, I will participate. I do not want the pressure and stress you have when you represent your country and everybody counts on you and predicts your sports future. As a masters athlete, I have the freedom to compete if I feel like doing so.

Yes, I have goals for 2003. I have not competed indoors since 1985. I always loved to run and jump in the nice Indoor facilities.

I will never forget my big win in the Europe Indoor Championships 1980 in Sindelfingen, West Germany. They had beautiful facilities, a great audience cheering Anke Weigt -- the German long jumper. The fight was back-and-forth and brought a lot of great moments. In the last jump, I got 6.74m (2 cm short of the indoor world record)  the Polish indoor record and I beat Anke. I got a big bouquet of tulips and I was happy about my accomplishment. If  I can find someone to cover the San Diego meet for me (I am in the middle of the track season), I will fly to Boston. I have also Puerto Rico in my plans and maybe Eugene nationals!