She has been a world-class distance runner for almost two decades, yet she ultimately may be remembered as an answer to an Olympic-sized trivia question: After Zola Budd and Mary Decker Slaney collided during the 3,000-meter run in the 1984 Summer Games, who won the race?
Romanian Maricica Puica is the answer.
"I don't mind that more people remember the accident than that I won," she said through an interpreter yesterday. "Every athlete dreams of winning an Olympic medal. I was very sad about the accident. I'd have been a lot happier if no one had fallen because the victory would have been more convincing. But history will record who won and eventually remember the rest of it. I certainly hope Mary is able to run again this summer."
Puica and her coach/husband Ion were in Washington to publicize her appearance in Sunday's Mobil One Invitational at George Mason University and to discuss a career that has included three Olympic appearances and races all over the world. At 37, she sometimes finds herself competing against runners half her age, and for her final Olympic appearance, she has put herself on a brutal training schedule.
Before she flew to Washington for yesterday's round of interviews, she was up for a 6:30 a.m. "limbering up" run through Central Park. Then, when she returned, she ran six miles at a six-minute pace.
Most nights, she said she is in bed by 9, and she is so careful about her diet, that she prepares her own meals, even when away from her home in Bucharest. One day a week, she eats only fruits "because they keep me feeling light."
That training schedule and her age are the reasons that she's aiming for only one more big race: an appearance in this summer's Olympic 3,000 meters. After that one, she plans to return to Romania to become a full-time coach "and maybe start a family."
"I'm glad to have seen as much of the world as I have," she said. "I understand a lot of people don't have that many opportunities. It hasn't been all fun. It's a lot of work. But there's still the thrill of winning, especially when you're competing against runners 10 or 15 years younger and seeing they can barely catch up."
Ion Puica met Maricica Luca in the early 1970s when he was a teacher at her high school in Bucharest. He became her coach in 1976 shortly after they were married and became the Romanian national coach a few years after that. They are an odd-looking couple, the middle-aged man and the feathery blonde.
But their affection for one another is also clear. They sometimes finish each other's sentences, and they defer questions to one another. He constantly reminds Maricica that at her age her training must be "severe."
Through an interpreter, he said their relationship is "sometimes difficult. As a coach, you have to be extremely severe, and as a husband you have to be gentle. It's two different things. The coach can't give in at all. He knows how to pace the athlete and what's best for her. I believe twice a week, her workouts should be more severe than the actual race competition."
Maricica interrupts to say: "It's hard for a coach because athletes can be very fickle, and a lot of times they take their bad moods out on their coach. It works both ways. If I have to go to bed at 9, he has to go to bed at 9."
She first competed in the Olympics in 1976. She finished seventh in the 1,500 meters in 1980, and in '84, won the gold in the 3,000 and a bronze in the 1,500. This summer, she said she's aiming for only the 3,000 "because at my age, my legs wouldn't have time to recover between the races. I'm almost 40, so it's important to prepare very carefully. There's also a certain amount of mental stress."
She's running the world indoor circuit this winter and says she'll either run the 3,000 or 1,500 at George Mason this weekend. She does it "to train for the Olympics. I don't feel comfortable on the indoor circuit because I'm used to the longer runs."
She said she looks toward her retirement "with mixed feelings. I'm going to miss it because I've dedicated myself to it. On the other side, the training has been hard. I've made a lot of sacrifices, but I hope to have athletes of my own at the Olympics. That'll be my goal in 1992."