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Sunday, July 19, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Life In A Runner's World -- At 19, Mozambique's Mutola Has A Magic All Her Own

EUGENE, Ore. - Maria Mutola giggles as she holds a toothpick in her right hand, and balances another on top of it with the index finger of her left hand, mysteriously making the second stick jump off the first.

She learned the trick back home in Mozambique, how to make the toothpick seem as if it had a mind of its own. And Mutola clearly gets pleasure from the perplexed look on the faces above her.

She explains nothing, shrugging as she gets up from the coffee table, leaving the Americans to wonder what she knows and what exactly they teach in this faraway land.

For starters, life in Mozambique - ranked as the world's worst country in terms of human suffering - teaches survival. Infants stand a 1-in-7 chance of dying before their first birthday, the average life span is 48 years, and civil war rages in its 17th year.

A medal favorite in the 800-meter run at the Barcelona Olympics this month, Mutola, not surprisingly, mentions competitiveness as her greatest strength.

"As kids playing soccer, we not like to lose," Mutola said in fractured English. "You win, and you happy all the time."

But the magic - the incredible ability, the powerful strides, the sub-two-minute runs at such a young age - defies simple explanation. And whatever life in Mozambique does teach, Mutola, 19, keeps mostly to herself, making one of the world's fastest-rising young track stars an intimidating presence.

Even the most veteran runners cannot keep their eyes off the well-muscled, seemingly unflappable teenager from southeast Africa.

"People her age just don't look like her," said PattiSue Plumer, middle-distance runner on the U.S. Olympic track team. "I mean, she's bigger than most male distance runners."

Ellen Van Langen of Holland has the top time in the world this year, at 1 minute, 56.66 seconds, and several veteran runners from Romania and the former Soviet republics know how to endure the tiring Olympic heats and save their best for the final. But Mutola expects the race to come down to her and the great Cuban runner, Ana Quirot, the favorite in the 1988 Seoul Olympics until her country joined the North Korea-led boycott.

A gold medal would make Mutola, who graduated from Springfield High School in Oregon this year, the first female Olympic champion from Africa in a middle- or long-distance event. She easily beat Quirot in an indoor meet in February, also placing ahead of the eventual top qualifier in the U.S., Joetta Clark.

To get an idea of how far ahead of other teenagers Mutola is, consider that her time of 1:58.25 at her final pre-Olympic tuneup in Nice, France, on Wednesday, is nine seconds better than that of any U.S. high-school runner this year. In a half-mile race, nine seconds means the winner is crossing the finish line when the next runner is

just coming out of the turn.

But if there is a Mutola mystique, it is based on how little competitors know about her, and her meteoric rise into the world elite.

She moved to Oregon in March 1991, by way of International Olympic Committee program that offers scholarships for Third World athletes to study abroad. When she arrived, she knew no English, had never been to the U.S., and what she did know about this country had come from video clips of New York City.

Eugene didn't exactly look like Manhattan.

On her first day here, a cold and rainy Pacific Northwest day, she went running with Andrew Hunt, a member of the Springfield High track team. Accustomed to the year-round warm, humid climate of southeast Africa, she wore no gloves.

"There was steam coming off her hands, they were so cold," Hunt said.

She got homesick, badly, and for several months wanted to return to Maputo. She could talk with only her Portuguese-speaking translator, Bob Crites, and had trouble communicating even the most basic information to her coach and live-in sponsor, Margo Fund. Only several months later did Fund learn Mutola goes by her middle name (De Lurdes) or nickname, not the first name on her passport.

"In Mozambique, people not call me Maria," Mutola said. "They call me `Lurdinhas.' "

The track and field world was unsettling, too. In her first big race, the Oregon Twilight in May 1991, observers thought she was shy for not immediately joining Shelly Steely and Mary Slaney on a celebration lap. In fact, she had no idea that was the custom. When she was pushed back onto the track, she thought she had another race to run.

Mutola was a quick study. Good thing, because by the end of the summer, she had dusted Steely, Slaney and several other top middle-distance runners at big meets. Until Wednesday, when an obscure former Soviet named Lyubov Gurina held off Mutola in the stretch at Nice, Mutola had not lost in an outdoor 800 race since placing fourth in a blanket finish at the World Championships in Tokyo last August.

Her coaches deserve much credit for improving her tactical skills against world-class competition. The Mutola project is not complete, but Fund said he believes there's enough polish there now to put her in contention for a medal in Barcelona.

"In terms of determination, desire, intelligence, courage - the things every champion should have - I would give her 10s in every category," said Fund, who also coaches track at Springfield High. "Last year I would have said experience was a weakness, but in the races she's run in this year, she's turned that into a strength."

So now a beleaguered nation of 15 million holds its breath for Mutola, who tries to win the first Olympic medal for Mozambique. In the 17 years since the country gained its independence from Portugal, no Mozambican has even made the final round of an Olympic event.

"Everybody's waiting for it - the president, the parliament, all the sports fans," said Antonio Matonse, press liaison for the Mozambique embassy in Washington, D.C. "She can give a different image of Mozambique, because she's a different kind of ambassador. She does not speak politics or war or poverty. She speaks her own language."

Mutola recognizes the pressure of wearing her country's green, black, yellow and red colors in Barcelona. After winning the 800 in the African Games last year, she was invited to visit the palace of the president, who gave her $10,000 to further her training, Matonse said. That's a gold rush in Mozambique, where the per-capita gross national product is about $100.

But Mutola tries to play down her status as a national figure. She laughs shyly at mention of the new track clubs that opened because of her success. She avoids comment on the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), the rebel group, except to say that in her neighborhood one woman was killed and one girl kidnapped, although none of her family members have been hurt in the violence.

Like most Mozambican children, she grew up with simple dreams of playing soccer in Portugal. She was discovered at age 15 while training with a boys soccer team, in fact, by Jose Graverinhas, Mozambique's poet laureate, whose son happens to be the national track coach.

Three months later, Mutola was on a plane to the Seoul Olympics, where she ran a 2:04.36 in heats, a remarkable time for a runner so new to the sport. The clocking did not qualify her for the semifinals, but laid the foundation for her eventual move to the U.S.

Soccer remains her favorite sport. She still finds running without the purpose of getting to a ball silly. But at the time, track was her best option. After scoring the tying goal in an important soccer game for her club, she said, she was told by Mozambique officials that females could not compete on men's teams.

"They say it come from FIFA," Mutola said of soccer's international governing body. "I not sure who make decision."

Mutola was alienated again for her athletic prowess when she enrolled at Springfield as a high-school junior.

Bowing to sentiment from coaches concerned that their girls would be overwhelmed by Mutola, officials of the Midwestern League banned her from competing in track and field. They later reversed themselves, and Mutola ran in the state 4A cross-country race. She won in a modest time that, contrary to predictions by cross-country observers, threatened neither the national nor the state record.

Runners on the world-class circuit were similarly inhospitable.

Mutola has suffered several times from getting bumped in races, most notably in the '91 Prefontaine Classic when Plumer stuck out her right arm to get ahead of Mutola as they headed into the final yards of the mile. Mutola, offended, threw up her arms and stopped running. Plumer later said the newcomer had caused the tangle by crossing into her lane, although videotape relays show Mutola keeping her feet within the prescribed lines.

Said Fund, who also is a middle-school teacher: "That comment reminds me of one of my sixth-graders who won't own up to her responsibility."

Plumer and Mutola have never had a conversation and still would not be described as best pals. Last week in Nice, Plumer went so far as to question whether Mutola might be older than listed.

"It's hard to know how old she really is," said Plumer, who said she is basing her opinion on conversations with other African runners who have had trouble verifying their ages. "You can buy passports that say anything. I'm not saying she did anything illegal, but her passport may not be her age as we (in the U.S.) understand age."

Mutola says she does have a birth certificate (date: Oct. 27, 1972), but that it's home in Maputo.

Mutola may duel Plumer again in Barcelona, but only if Mutola feels strong enough after the 800 final Aug. 2 to challenge in the 1,500 three days later. Plumer made the U.S. team in the 1,500 and 3,000.

Mutola said she holds no animosity toward Plumer. If anything, the shove from Plumer was another lesson in survival, the kind every elite runner must receive.

"I knew that in soccer they do that, but not track and field," Mutola said. "I know that if it happens, I can't stop anymore. I try to keep running."

Because of her huge muscles, raspy, deep voice, and rapid entry into elite sports, Mutola is certain to hear speculation about whether she takes steroids. To that charge - her coaches say she has passed four drug tests in the past year - she said flatly: "I never do drugs."

She does not take any kind of medicine unless seriously ill, she said, and rejects even vitamins. Her bulk comes from lots of chicken and rice, and hours in the weight room, she said. Besides, she asks, how many African athletes have been found to be using performance-enhancing drugs?

Answer: none, at least not any of note, outside South Africa. The chemical culture, indeed, belongs mostly to athletes from Europe and North America.

But Mutola does not seem especially bothered that people will whisper and wonder what magic produced a world-class athlete out of nowhere (at least on the track and field map). She lets rivals do the worrying, the guessing, and only begins to fathom them on the night before a race when strategy gets discussed.

"I don't like to think about other people," she said.

The sentiment gets increasingly mutual as Barcelona approaches.

------------------------------- THURSDAY IN THE TIMES ---------------------------------- -- Getting ready for the Olympics? The Games begin Friday in Barcelona, with opening ceremonies Saturday.

The Times can help with the couch-potato approach to the Olympics. On Thursday, we'll publish a viewer's guide to the Olympics - a television schedule, an update on Washington's Olympians, and a gold-medal look at who to watch in every sport.

Don't miss it - Thursday in The Times.

----------------------------------- OLYMPIC PROFILE ----------------------------------- -- Name: Maria Mutola. -- Age: 19. -- Event: 800-meter run, in which she is a medal contender. -- Country: Mozambique. -- Local ties: Graduated from Springfield (Ore.) High School, this year. She moved to Oregon in March 1991, by way of an International Olympic Committee program that offers scholarships for Third World athletes to study abroad.

Published Correction Date: 07/20/92 - A Special Olympics Preview Will Appear In Wednesday's Sports Section. The Wrong Date Was Published In This Story.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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