Home » Interview with Francie Larrieu Smith…an Olympic Legend.

Interview with Francie Larrieu Smith…an Olympic Legend.

Francie as USATF coach in Amman, Jordan

Francie (far left) was the Junior Women's coach in the 2009 World XC Champs in Amman, Jordan.

Francie Larrieu Smith was named by Runner’s World as the “most versatile runner of the Quarter century”. And rightful so, as she competed in 5 Olympic games racing everything from the 800 to the marathon! She had a 30 year long athletic career and now coaches at Southwestern University in Texas. I had the chance to be on two international teams where Francie was a team leader. We traveled to Amman, Jordan, and Guadalajara, Mexico, where I had the opportunity to get to know her personally. I asked if she would be interested in sharing her story with Huxley, and she willingly agreed. Enjoy the story of this legendary athlete!

Stats:

During her 30 year career, Francie held 36 USA records and 12 World Bests ranging from the 1k to the 10k. She qualified for the ’72, 76, 80, 88, and 92 Olympics with her best performance being the 10k in ’88 when she placed 5th in 31:35. Ironically, in 1992, Francie’s last Olympics, both she and my dad placed 12th in the marathon.

PRs:

800-2:00.22 (1976)

1500-4:05.09 (1976)

Mile-4:27.52 (1979)

3k-8:50.54 (1985)

5k-15:15.2 (1988)

10k-31:28.92 (1991)

marathon-2:27.35 (1991)

HRC-Where to begin? So, five-time Olympian; the first American Women to earn these honors (followed by Dara Torres in 2008, according to Wiki), what do you believe contributed to the longevity of your successful career?

FLS-Not true (Wiki lies). Willye White a long jumper and sprinter made 5 US Olympic Teams (1956-60-64-68-72).  Willye’s final Olympic Team was my first. Some might say she passed the torch my way.   Regarding longevity-In a nut shell:  Persistent pursuit of the goal I set at age 13—go to the Olympics and win a gold medal.  This coupled with the changes that occurred in T&F and the Olympic Games over the course of my athletic career.  I was fortunate to have run the first ever 1500 (1972) and 10K (1988) for women in the Olympic Games.  Also the rules changed in T&F where athletes could earn prize money, thus, while I never lost sight of the ultimate goal of winning a gold medal, athletic competition became my job (though the income for athletes back then was miniscule in comparison to today’s standard).  Last, but certainly not least, I love to compete!

HRC-Going back to the beginning, how did you get involved in the sport, and how did these carry you to your first Olympic games?

FLS-In a time when there were no athletic programs in the schools for girls and limited opportunity in athletics for women (we are talking the 60’s and pre-Title IX) I would answer this question with one word-exposure-to the sport.  My oldest brother Ron competed for the US in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.  He ran in the famous Billy Mills gold medal 10K race.  Through watching my brother compete, I learned that girls can compete also.  It NEVER occurred to me I could not do this.

HRC-You started in the 1500, moved to the 5k, and then up to the marathon. Was it your idea or your coach’s to move up in distance? It obviously was successful, but did you ever have any doubts or regrets?

FLS-My progression in sport mirrored the changes in opportunity for women in T&F.  I was all about the Olympic Games.  I actually started as an 800 meter runner, because back then that was the longest race in the Olympic Games for women.  The 1500 was added for women in 1972 and my recently retired age group coach Augie Argabright, believed the 1500 would be my best event.  While I did run a few 5K’s on the track, I did not actively pursue that event.  The 5K was NOT an event for women in the Olympics until post FLS (my) career (1996).  With regards to the 10K/Marathon:  In 1980, I consciously decided to turn to road racing in 1985 (after the LA-Olympic Games).  Road racing was becoming popular in the US, thanks in part to individuals such as Grete Waitz.  The women’s 400 hurdles, 3K, and marathon were added to the ’84 Olympic Games.  I believed that while I had set a goal of running a marathon back in the 70’s and had determined that I would move up in distance, I was still all about the Olympic Games and believed the marathon would be a stretch for me at that point in time.  I stayed on the track and turned to the roads in ‘85.  This was a decision that I reached following the ’80 games and my association with Coach Preston Davis and prior to becoming involved with my long time coach Robert Vaughan.  I was extremely discouraged after my failure to qualify for the Olympic Team in 1984 (another story) and competing on the roads breathed new life into my athletic career.   Fortunately for me the women’s 10K was added to the slate for the ’88 games.   While I had turned to road racing I still LOVED the track.  The 10K on the track was a no brainer for me.  I ran my first marathon in 1985 and planned to compete in both the marathon and 10K in the ’88 Olympic Trials.  A minor injury and subsequent testing by my coach Robert Vaughn indicated I was not ready to sustain the pace needed to make the team in the marathon.  In the winter of ’88 my focused shifted to qualifying for the Olympic Team in the first ever women’s 10K in the Olympic Games (ultimately my best finish—5th) and the first time I walked off the Olympic Games track with no excuses.  Following ’88 I turned my focus to the marathon and ran my personal best of 2:27.35 at the 1991 London Marathon.  That was also the year I ran what was then an AR in the10K 31:28.92 just 2 weeks prior to London.   No regrets.  I had my 15 minutes of fame and loved every minute!

HRC-Can you tell us a little about your training. Where did you train (any altitude?), who did you train with, and as went up in distance how did your training (mileage, workouts, strength work, cross training, etc.) change?

FLS-I grew up in Palo Alto and Sunnyvale, CA.  I joined a girl’s age group team (the only game in town) that disbanded after a few months.  As it turns out, the coach was the new coach at what would be my HS the following year.  He invited me to come out and train with the boys at the HS (remember no girls programs in schools back in the 60’s).  My first two years in HS, I trained with the Fremont HS (Sunnyvale, CA) boys cross country and track & field teams.  My coach arranged for me to run in some of the boys XC meets but only so I would not miss workout when they raced.  The other coaches agreed to allow me to race with the boys with the stipulation that I could not score for the team.  He took me to girl’s only meets on the weekends.  In the beginning I trained 5 days week during the school year and never in the summer.  It never occurred to me I lacked opportunity because I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing—competing  and working towards my goal of winning an Olympic gold medal.  After my sophomore year in HS my coach disappeared.  I often wonder if his allowing me to train with the boys had anything to do with his leaving Fremont HS.  In the mean time, Augie Argabright had formed the San Jose Cindergals, and I soon joined the team (again the only game in town for girls).  I lived at home and graduated from De Anza Junior college in Cupertino, CA (no college scholarships for women at that time.  I trained 5-7 days week and began doing two-a-days 3 x week.  I also started doing long run’s of (10-15 miles with my teammate Jackie Dixon.   I met Tom Jennings and joined the Pacific Coast Club (first female PCC team member). This was long before the club system began to flourish.  Tom made it possible for me to travel the world and have real competitive experiences (not just dual meets which was the only action I saw outside the Olympic Games until I joined the PCC.   Tom wanted everyone in LA at that time so I moved to LA.  I trained with the men’s team at UCLA for a year then I moved to Long Beach and trained with the men’s team at Cal State Long Beach.  Tom was not a coach but rather a manager.  When my coach Preston Davis moved to TX, I soon followed with the notion it was for just a year (prior the ’80 Olympics. I met my husband in, TX, and then began to move where he needed to move for work.  When in Denton, TX (‘80-85) I began training with the local college team then found Robert Vaughan in Dallas who coached me throughout the remainder of my athletic career.  In Dallas I trained with Robert’s running group that consisted mostly of post collegiate men and women trying to compete at a high level.  Robert is best known for coaching distance runners but he was actually an all around coach and coached Texas-ex Tammy Etienne to an AR in the 400 hurdles.  I feel fortunate to have found Robert Vaughn in Dallas.  No doubt his program and guidance greatly contributed to the longevity of my athletic career.  Very few athletes trained at altitude back in the day I liked being near my coach and training partners all who worked for a living (unless you were a college or HS coach back then you could not make a living as a coach). Augie my age group coach had us doing strength training in the form of stadium steps and hill-work.  I started lifting weights under Preston Davis.  I learned how to do plyo-s and drills under Robert Vaughan.  I rarely cross trained.  I am of the mindset that exercise is specific and if you want to be a competitive runner you must run.  I was also fortunate to have, for the most part, remained injury free throughout my athletic career.

HRC-Who were your coaches and what was their philosophy?

FLS-Preston Doss-first coach, recognized my talent kept me in the game and taught me pace.  Age group Coach Augie Argabright found his own way and was a pioneer at marrying the competing philosophies of the 60’s and early 70’s of long slow running vs nothing but speed oriented training.  Preston Davis I would say was rooted in pioneer Australian coach Percy Cerutty. Robert Vaughan definitely rooted in Arthur Lydiard.

HRC- What is one of your favorite stories from your experience at the Olympic Games?

FLS-In chronological order:  1. Parading into the stadium during opening ceremonies in Munich in1972 (my first Olympic Games)  2.  Walking off the track in the 10K in Seoul (88) and for the first time in the Olympic Games knowing I had done my very best—no excuses.  3. Representing the US Olympic Team as flag bearer in the opening ceremonies in Barcelona (1992).

HRC-How has your experience as an accomplished athlete benefit your coaching now at Southwestern? 

FLS-Having been a competitor has given me incredible insight into the mind of an athlete.  As a coach I feel and incredible responsibility to be the very best coach that I can be to my athletes, and also to continue to grow and learn as a coach.  Coaching at the NCAA Division-III level has broadened my vision of competitive athletics.  I have come to realize that athletic competition is athletic competition but in different arena’s.  Some from my team traveled to Houston to watch the recent marathon trials.  I asked them what they learned from that experience, and following our discussion, I pointed out that most athletes are similar with similar feelings about winning and losing and racing and we all get back up and race again regardless.

Francie (middle) as coach in Guadalajara, Mexico at the PAN AM games. Left is Kim Conley, and Right is Neely Spence following their not-so-fun race in the 5k.

HRC-I have been on two USA teams where you were the distance coach. How and when did you get involved with USATF to coach international events? 

FLS-I became involved with USATF about two years prior to World Cross in Amman in 2009.  Doris Heritage (THE BEST doctor when I came on the scene as an age grouper) convinced me to become involved for the purpose of becoming a team leader.  USATF is pushing for team leaders who are coaches and have been elite competitors.  I must say the experience has renewed my enthusiasm not only for our sport but also for being the best coach I can be to my team.

HRC-Where are some of the cool places running has taken you? And what is your most memorable trip? 

FLS-I have been most places in the world that I desire to go except New Zealand.  Never made it to NZ primarily because I LOVED racing indoors in the US which was run in the same season as the outdoor competitive season in NZ.  Some of the unique and/or unusual places I have been are Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland and Romania prior to the break-up and falling of the Wall.  I competed in Lichtenstein, and I competed in Tahiti on a grass track.  I was thankful to have the opportunity to go the Middle East (Amman) as team leader for World Cross.  Who can forget the prayer calls, floating in the Dead Sea, and the spectacular Petra? (*Francie was my team leader during this trip, thanks for the memories!)  Memorable trip…hmmm hard to say…I would have to say my “success” in Seoul made that a memorable trip.  No gold but again the first time I walked off the track at Olympic Games with no excuses and feeling I had done my very best.  There were many adventures over the years.  I have particularly fond memories of my adventures with my teammates on the Pacific Coast Club back in the day.  There is a book to be written about that era in our sport.

A sign at the Olympic Training Center in Co Springs recognizing all those who carried the flag.

HRC-Last, can you share with us what it was like to be the flag bearer in the Olympics? 

FLS-Incredible honor!  I felt as if I were an appendage to the symbol of the American people…I felt an enormous sense of responsibility…I must be perfect!  Ironically, once I was chosen as flag-bearer NO-ONE discussed flag protocol/etiquette with me.  Fortunately I had been around long enough to know what to do.  There were so many what if’s in my mind.  This an abbreviated version of the story…once I passed the review stand (dignitaries) and the cameras were off I looked up into the stands and noticed a proliferation of American flags waving in the crowd and I felt extreme pride and emotion that I continue to feel today every time I hear the national anthem.