U.S. gets first marathon medal in 20 years

Updated: August 22, 2004, 8:30 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Training with her dog high in the Sierras, then dodging herds of sheep on runs through the hills of Crete in the days before the Olympics, Deena Kastor kept believing she could earn a medal in the marathon.

"I couldn't have prepared myself any better," she said during a break in her Crete training.

Two weeks later, Kastor conquered the rugged hills of the ancient course that gave the marathon its name, somehow marshaling the energy to pull from eighth to third in the final few miles and earn the first U.S. marathon medal in 20 years.

Mizuki Noguchi of Japan held off Kenya's Catherine Ndereba to win the gold, but Kastor was gaining on them at the end. Ndereba took the silver, reversing the order of last year's world championships, where the Kenyan won and Noguchi was second.

Noguchi, who ran the course as a warmup in June, won in 2 hours, 26 minutes, 20 seconds. She was 49 seconds ahead of Ndereba, who narrowed the lead to 14 seconds late in the race but could get no closer.

Kastor, who overtook Ethiopian Elfenish Alemu with less than a mile remaining in the 26.2-mile race, finished in 2:27.19. Her bronze was the first marathon medal for an American since Joan Benoit's gold in 1984.

"It's incredible," said Kastor, an ultra-thin, exceedingly gracious 31-year-old. "I was in tears the whole last lap."

The favorite, British world record holder Paula Radcliffe, faded to fourth place and then quit about 3 miles (six kilometers) from the finish, bursting into tears, then sitting on a curb and sobbing.

At the finish line in Panathiniko Stadium in central Athens -- site of the original modern Olympics in 1896 -- the crowd of mostly British fans stood in stunned silence as the giant television screen showed Radcliffe stopping, trying to start again, then stopping for good, her face contorted in agony. They never had the chance to wave the British flags that most of them carried.

A silver medalist at the last two world cross-country championships, she was Deena Drossin when she broke Benoit's 18-year-old American record at 2 hours, 21 minutes, 16 seconds with a third-place finish at the 2003 London Marathon. She married Andrew Kastor almost a year ago, and the couple lives in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

She easily passed the fading Ethiopian to clinch the surprise medal.

"A little more real estate, and she'd have had the gold," said her husband, who admitted that he too choked up when he saw her tears on the final lap.

The marble, horseshoe-shaped stadium was less than half-full, although most of those there were for Radcliffe. They waved flags and danced to music blaring from loudspeakers as Radcliffe set the pace through the halfway point of the race.

But one and a half hours into the competition, Noguchi and Alemu opened up a lead over Radcliffe and Ndereba.

Discarding her gray cap as the sun went down, Radcliffe faded to third. She briefly retook second, then fell back again behind Ndereba and the leader Noguchi.

Two hours into the race, Noguchi held a 30-second lead over Ndereba and a minute over Radcliffe. After the finish, Noguchi had to be helped from the stadium by an official.

She had run the Olympic course in June, then went to train at altitude in St. Moritz, Switzerland, returning to Athens just three days ago. She kept the gold in Japanese hands -- her countrywoman Naoko Takahasi won the gold in Sydney in 2000.

The race begun in the heat of early evening in the town of Marathon.

What once was a rural landscape during the first modern marathon 108 years ago had turned into a course lined with strip malls, car dealerships and fast-food restaurants -- and a series of hills that made it one of the toughest marathon routes in the world.

This was the first time women had raced the ancient course over which, it is said, Pheidippides carried the news in 490 B.C. that the Greeks had defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon.

"Be joyful. We win!" Pheidippides shouted.

Then he dropped dead.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press