Francie Larrieu Smith was the first female American athlete to make five Olympic teams during one of the longest distance running careers of any United States woman ever. She won 21 national titles in track and set 13 world indoor and 35 American records in her career. She was inducted into the United States Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1998 and National Distance Running Hall of Fame in 1999. Runner’s World magazine named her the most versatile runner of the quarter century (1975-1999).
She was 19 in 1972 when she ran in the 1,500-meter run at the 1972 Olympics, the longest distance race for women at the time. She qualified in the same event in the 1976 Olympics and again in 1980 when the United States boycotted the games. Her best Olympic performance came in 1988 when she was fifth in the 10,000-meter run in Seoul, S. Korea. In 1992, she finished 12th in the marathon but was chosen to be the flagbearer for the U.S. team in Barcelona, Spain.
Her personal bests were 2 minutes, 0.22 seconds (1976) in the 800 run; 4:05.09 (1976) in the 1,500; 4:27.52 (1979) in the mile; 8:50.54 (1985) in the 3,000; 9:38.1 (1981) in the two mile; 15:15.2 (1988) in the 5,000; 32:28.92 (1991) in the 10,000; and 2-27.35 (1991) in the marathon.
Since 1999 she has been the cross country coach at the Southwestern University in Texas, a school that is a member of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference.
This week, she’s one of the Olympic clinicians at the Maximum Velocity Track and Field Academy at Centre College that started Sunday night and ends Wednesday.
“I think it is marvelous that they have about 150 kids here,” said Smith. “This is a wonderful turnout for a first-year camp and it will only get better. This is a perfect, small college atmosphere for here and the list of clinicians is as good as you could ever find.”
Smith shared these other observations during a break Sunday night.
Question: How did a five-time Olympian end up coaching cross country at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, a Division III school?
Smith: “I have been there for 12 years. I have been here and my team has competed here at least twice since I¿have been at Southwestern. As a high school kid and college kid,¿I always thought I would be a coach. My career took me a different path, so post career I went back to school to get my teaching certificate and to coach. I realized it would be better for me to focus on the coaching aspect rather than the teaching aspect. I got my Master’s degree. I actually had very limited options. My husband is a tenured professor at Southwestern. I am limited to schools in that geographic area, but it was the perfect starting job for me. It was the first ever fulltime coach hired for cross country at Southwestern. They had been trying to hire me. My husband was there for 10 years before I¿agreed to work for them. Our athletics director had been kind of mentoring me, which is why I ended up going back to school at 45.
“It has been an interesting road. I think it would have been fun to have been an assistant coach with an experienced head coach first. But it has worked out okay for me and the school.”
Question: Is that relationship with Centre College the reason you are part of his camp?
Smith: “Absolutely. (Centre College track coach) Lisa (Owens) called and asked if I would participate and convinced me and talked me into it, which was pretty easy.”
Question: When you go to recruit, do high school runners know about your Olympic background?
Smith: “I don’t tell them who I¿am. If they figure it out, fine. Some do know or figure it out, some don’t. Usually the parents know. To be honest, I used not to even put it on my recruiting materials but somebody very early on said, ‘Francie, get real. You need to use that.’ So it is on my recruiting pitch now. I don’t play it up. I feel like as a coach I still have a lot to accomplish. I have not won a conference championship like Lisa. I have not taken a full team to nationals. I¿have taken an individual, but not a full team. There are still a lot of challenges ahead for me as a coach.”
Question: Does being a five-time Olympian still have special meaning or significance for you even now?
Smith: “It is interesting because I am the kind of person who really does not look back. I have lived a privileged and just a fun life. But that doesn’t make me a good coach. I am so focused on being the best coach I can be. Yes, I know I did all that, but it my mind it is such ancient history that I¿really don’t think about it a lot.
“In fact, when I go to running group and I plod by little slow miles now, I¿think, ‘How on earth did I¿ever string 26 of those (miles in the marathon) together?’ I can’t even run one mile that fast now. I attempt to run now. I¿like to try and stay fit.”
Question: How special was being the flagbearer for the United States Olympic team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona for you?
Smith: “I was beaming. It was an incredibly great honor. It never occurred to me that I¿would be chosen for flagbearer. My husband kind of got me thinking I¿might be chosen before we left for Barcelona, but I¿was very pleasantly surprised. It was by far at the top of the list for my Olympic experiences.
“Of course the athletics were very important to me and I¿am still disappointed I¿never won a gold medal, but being chosen as a flagbearer was by far the top experience of mine in the Olympic Games. Then also finally in Seoul in 1988 walking off the track for the first time in the Olympic Games in my third try that I¿walked off the track and had actually given everything I¿had and had a great race and ended up in fifth place. That was a good feeling, too.
“But the flagbearer was a great experience. I still get emotional when I¿talk about it even now. It was that special.”
Question: Are there any regrets about your distinguished running career?
Smith: “There are no regrets. It’s just that athletes are so hard on ourselves. If you think about it, we really are a bunch of failures because we are not breaking records every single day. We are never happy unless we break a record or win a major championship. That’s the bottom line. We are never happy. That will always be in the back of my mind that I¿did not win a gold medal. From the age of 13, my goal was to win an Olympic gold medal.
“But I have had an outstanding, long career in this sport and I still get to play being a coach and working with young people. And it is fun for me to use whatever experience I¿had as an athlete to try and help them try and be better athletes.”
Question: What message and/or lessons do you have to help youngsters at this camp?
Smith: “I think in distance running in particular, you can only do so much running. I want to teach them good training habits. I think a lot of the philosophy and things I¿learned along the way that were difficult hurdles for me but are very important lessons for young, developing athletes. I will just share my experiences and hope that from listening to me or the other Olympians that something we say will just maybe touch one of these kids or two of these kids or 10 of these kids and really make a difference in there athletic careers.”