“I knew if I stopped or sat down, that would be the end of it. I was just determined to make it to that finish line.”
And so Gabriela Andersen staggered into the Olympic stadium in Los Angeles. The 39-year-old from Switzerland was a ski instructor in the US state of Idaho when she represented her country at the 1984 Olympics. But the heat and humidity of a 30° C day in August had proved to be overpowering.
It didn’t help that Andersen had somehow missed the water station and did not replenish herself as she entered the last phase of the marathon.
American Joan Benoit won the first women’s Olympic marathon in a time of 2:24:52 but Andersen who finished more than 20 minutes later, in 37th place, was cheered on in much the same way as the winner.
Andersen entered the stadium for the last lap of the marathon in bad shape — her legs were wobbling, her posture dangerously slumped and she was unable to even walk straight. But in her mind, she kept telling herself to stay focussed.
“Try to keep running. Try to stay upright. My muscles just did not respond. It just deteriorated over the last 400 meters. At this point, I’m in the Olympics. I want to finish this race because this is my one and only chance. I was 39. I knew in another four years there was a very slim chance to qualify again,” Andersen later recalled.
Medical attendants rushed to offer Andersen aid, but she waved them off, knowing that if they touched her, she would be disqualified – just as Dorando Pietri was in the 1908 Olympics.
But as she made her way around the stadium track, the cheers grew louder and louder.
“I clearly remember the cheering and the noise,” she later said. “It was just incredible. It was so loud. I didn’t expect something like that. That probably kept me going too.”
Her last lap took five minutes and 44 seconds. Each second of that lap was a gentle reminder of what the Olympics really stand for – not winning, not losing but about the human spirit being able to conquer all that stands before it.