Aileen O'Connor of College Park, one of America's outstanding distance runners, recently spent a week at Squaw Valley, Calif., serving as a guinea pig in the U.S. Olympic Committee's newly joined struggle to retain supremacy for American athletes in international competition.
O'Connor and 49 other women tramped on a treadmill, jumped vertically and horizontally, underwent strength and body fat testing and ran four miles each morning at 6:30, at 6,300 feet elevation, all in the cause of progress. And what happened at about the same time?
The 87 men of the International Olympic Committee, the conservative body that administers the Olympic Games, decided that women's 3,000-meter run should once again be deleted from the 1980 Olympic program, ostensibly because "it is a little too strenuous for women."
"That's ridiculous," said the 16-year-old O'Connor, sixth in the AAU national senior championships behind Jan Merrill, Francie Larrieu Lutz, etc., in June. "Maybe by the time 1980 comes around, they'll change their mind. They have to put it in sometime. Women are running the marathon now."
O'Connor, according to Skip Grant, her coach with the Washington CYO running group, was "very average physically among the group" at Squaw Valley. Her jump reach and standing long jump were lowest, her leg strength was among the least. But there was an item they couldn't test - determination.
"Aileen was one of the youngest at the camp," said Grant, who also attended, "but there were only two others who were faster at 3,000 meters. Dr. Ken Forman said the tests they gave at the camp can help an athlete 50 per cent, but the other 50 per cent is between the ears.' Aileen has confidence in herself. The efficiency test showed her pretty close to maximum, getting the most out of what she had. Where she will improve, though, is in strength and maturity. She's by no means at the maximum as far as accomplishment is concerned."
O'Connor was pleased by the camp in two ways, the fact that it showed somebody was thinking about women distance runners and the fact that it was "really fun. It was a great experience. I met a lot of new people. A lot of them were people I just raced against but never really met before. I still want to beat them, but it will be a more friendly competition."
"That's exactly what was intended," Grant said. "The coaches and athletes were encouraged to form relationships, to meet new friends at meal times and during relaxed hours. The overall theme with our atheletes was to give them a nudge and not to push, to keep them interested. In 1974 they held a similar clinic, and only four were back this time. That figure is reason for concern."
In East Germany, they take muscle biopsies of young girls, pick out some with the proper slow-twitch fibers and make them distance runners. O'Connor came to the sport in a simpler manner - at age 11 she found she could beat the boys.
"Her fifth grade physed teacher called me aside one day and told me she'd beaten all but one boy in the class and that I should get her in volved in track," recalled O'Connor's mother, Blaine. "I said, 'What's track?' I have two boys who play football and my four children like everything from horesback riding to swimming, but Aileen was the first and only one interested in running. I asked her if she's like to try it and she lit up like a Christmas tree. It just went on from there."
Aileen - that's Gaelic for Helen - moved from one tutor to another, from Russ Sellers to Gage Mirkin to Books Johnson to Grant. Her times have improved dramatically each year and following her 9:22.7 AAU performance (as late as 1975, Larrieu's American record was 9:16), her horizons seem unlimited.
"He rate of progression is good and she hasn't reached a plateau yet," Grant said. "She's young, she's still growing, she's getting stronger and, if she maintains good health, she will continue to improve."
Distance training is a year round thing and O'Connor runs seven days a week with only rare, brief periods away from the sport.
"It's impossible for any national class distance runner to take a prolonged period off," Grant said, "You have to be in love with it."
Realizing the possibility of boredon, Gran highlights values other than medals.
"I try to stress that running is a way of life, that it's a necessity to good health, both mental and physical," Grant said. "You have to get intense before a major competition. You can't avoid it. There's no way to escape work if you want to compete on a national level. But at other times, like right now. I don't set any prescribed mileage. I tell them to run until they get tired or bored or whatever, to enjoy it, to look at their surroundings, at people or things in nature."
Grant's charges, of whom O'Connor at 16 is considered a "grandmama," were bouncing arond a scenic area of Rock Creek Park, many talking as they went - all sizes, shapes and colors.
O'Connor, 5-foot-8 and 105 pounds, does not stand out.
"If you see her with the other kids," Grant said, "There's no way you can tell how good she is. In fact, I had to chastise her six months ago to lead the exercises, because she didn't want to be in the forefront."
If she shuns the spotlight, it is not for lack of confidence in her ability.
"She's a very dignified competitor, both before and after a race," Grant said, "It's only during the race that you see the bulldog spirit that lies within her."
This season, O'Connor has won national titles in the AAU junior cross country (by 27 seconds), Road Runners cross country, and Junior Olympics two-mile and cross country, She was beaten in the junior AAU 3,000 meters by three-tenths of a second, running two hours after she had placed sixth in the 1,500 in 4:28.
She ran the 1,500 to try to make the junior team that was facing the Soviet Union. There was no 3,000 scheduled in that meet.
"That's the first time I've even seen her where her legs buckled," Grant said. "She was trying so hard. And it was really incredible, to run 9:29 two hours after such a fast 1,500."
O'Connor has run the two mile in 10:18 and, for comparison purposes, be advised that the area high school record for girls in 11:16.3. A time of 11:44.9 was good enough to win the Maryland AA title this spring and it's only natural that O'Connor's High Point classmates would ask why she is not representing the Eagles.
"I just tell them that I had to make my decision years ago," O'Connor said. "You can't compete in Maryland and run AAU, too. I'm sure I made the right decision. Anyway, it used to be that only my close friends even knew I was running.The other are just beginning to find out."
The U.S. Olympic Committee, through its camp program, has buoyed interest in women's distance running. There is evidence that the State of Maryland will alter its ban against dual competition in high school and AAU events. If somebody could convinve the 87 men of the IOC that females are not too dainty to run 1 7/8 miles, Aileen O'Connor would be living in the best of all possible worlds.