by Anne Audain
On June 28th, 1981 in Portland, Oregon after the Cascade Run Off 15K, I made a decision that changed my life and the lives of hundreds of Track and Field athletes around the world and future Olympians from all sports.
I was 25 years old and had arrived in the USA from my native New Zealand a few months prior, to try my luck racing on the newly formed USA road racing circuit.
My first 10 years as a competitive runner had been spent as an amateur, belonging to a local athletic club, finishing high school, going to teachers college, and teaching elementary school for 4 years.
During those years I was very competitive in my sport representing New Zealand at World Cross Country Championships (5 times), Commonwealth Games (1974), and Olympic Games (qualified in 1972, 1976, and 1980, but only went to Montreal in ’76). I was a multiple New Zealand Champion and record holder.
The hardships came as an amateur trying to combine the training with school, college, and eventually being a school teacher (at age 20 years!). I caught all sorts of bugs from the kids, didn’t have a car, and rode buses to school each day! I would get up at 5:00am to run a few miles and then do a hard training session at the club track after school. If I was lucky, folks with cars would drive me to and from the bus station which was 2 miles from my home. Otherwise I walked.
In 1980, after the USA boycott of the Moscow Olympics, supported by New Zealand and other allies, I quit the sport entirely, got out of shape and overweight.
After some months, I was encouraged to start again and joined my second coach John Davies
In early 1981, I made my 5th New Zealand cross country team to Madrid, Spain. While there, I heard about the USA road racing scene and how women were being allowed to race the longer distances. At this time the 800m and 1500m were the longest distances in the Olympic Games for women.
I told my parents I would not be coming home but had decided to try my luck in the USA. I arrived in New Orleans, from London, in March of 1981 and raced the first 10K of my life finishing 3rd. Many people involved in the circuit were extremely supportive, letting me stay in their homes, paying me a few dollars (against all the amateur rules) to speak in running stores so I could support myself a little. After New Orleans, I raced in Eugene, Spokane, Boulder, New York, Denver, and Colorado Springs with so much success! I was born again!
There was a great deal of excitement surrounding this “new world” of road racing and it brought us all to Portland, OR in June to compete in the Cascade Runoff, a 15K sponsored by Nike.
Phil Knight, Nike’s founder, wanted the sport to be professional, as did many of the race directors. Nike put up $50,000 as prize money to be equally distributed between the male and female top ten finishers. First place was $10,000. The night before, all the athletes were assembled and told of the risks of accepting the money (i.e., being banned from the sport!). I was confident that if I finished in the top six I would have enough money to stay a little longer in USA. I had no doubt about my decision, as I had witnessed so many male athletes on the European track circuit being paid “under the table”! I wanted the opportunity to pursue a professional career and to see how good I could be!
Race day turned out better than I thought and I won! I was presented with the check for $10,000 and was immediately in a lot of trouble. I received a telegram – yes a telegram – from the New Zealand Federation banning me from the sport. I was only in the USA on a visitor’s visa, so accepting the money was illegal too. My parents just wanted me to get on a plane and come home!
After so much support from so many, Nike, my coach, race directors, immigration lawyers, and fellow athletes, I was able to continue racing on the road circuit and went on a 20-race win streak, which took me into 1983! During that time I broke the World Record for the 5000m and won the Gold Medal in the Commonwealth Games 3000m in Brisbane, Australia (1982).
I was reinstated to race on the track one week before winning the Commonwealth Gold Medal and retroactively awarded the World Record.
There is obviously so much more to this story, but simply said, the Cascade Run Off 15K win changed my life! I became a full time professional runner which enabled me to completely control my environment to enable success. I retired in 1992, having been named the most successful road racer, male or female, in the 80’s!
I often say that if it wasn’t for that small group of runners in June of 81, Michael Jordan and the Dream Team would never have competed in the Olympics, as no professional athletes were allowed prior to that.
It was scary at the time but the risk was SO worth it!
For more information on the 1981 Cascade Run Off 15K, read the article 1981 Cascade Run Off: The Race that Changed the Sport on Runner’s World