Sprawled across the overstuffed couch in her two-bedroom apartment near the UCLA campus, her stringy wet hair wrapped in a towel, Francie Larrieu doesn’t look like a woman who could get anywhere in a hurry. But slip her into a track suit and a pair of lightweight spikes, and she can turn laps on a cinder track faster than any woman in America.
Francie already holds five world and four U.S. records. She runs so frequently that she says her ’66 yellow Volkswagen has developed a homing instinct for the L.A. International airport, where it spends most weekends while Francie is off competing in places like Austin, Tex. or Eugene, Oreg.
An invitation on the back of a Wheaties box to join the Junior Olympics got her interested in track at 13. She is the sixth of nine children, and her older brother Ron, a long-distance runner on the 1964 Olympic team, provided encouragement and competition. Before long she was running 80 miles a week and cleaning up the competition around her home in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Now the most acclaimed of all U.S. female runners, Francie, 22, is frequently asked to be a spokeswoman for the amateur track circuit. After breaking her own woman’s world record in the mile with a 4:28.5 in Richmond, Va. last month, she bubbled: “Someday women will be running sub-four-minute miles and challenging other men’s records.”
She has challenged the rules of the Amateur Athletic Union, which often has treated women as second-class athletes. “I’m not one of their favorites,” she laughs. “They have a lot of Mickey Mouse rules that sometimes are a pain in the rear. I’m not afraid to stand up for what I want. After all, it’s not like I’m Bertha Butt.”
In training she does not practice the asceticism of other distance runners. She often jogs to a nearby Baskin-Rob-bins for a chocolate ice cream cone and has lightened her weekly workouts from 80 miles to 50 or 60. Some of her coaches think she should train more, race less and concentrate on one event—the mile—instead of running a variety of distance events. “But I like racing,” she says. “I’m having a good time, so I race.”
Off the track, she demonstrates an enjoyment of life uncommon among dedicated athletes. Although she is a capable student, she has bounced in and out of school whenever the spirit has moved her. Over five years she has attended three schools and now, at an age when most women have graduated, she is only a junior at UCLA.
Having moved out of her parents’ home a year ago, she shares an apartment with a young man—”We’re just roommates, nothing more,” she says. Her closest male friend at the moment is Brian McElroy, a half-miler for the New York Athletic Club. Earlier this year Francie threatened not to show up for a meet against a Russian team, unless McElroy was allowed to compete. Happily he made the U.S. team on his own; Francie showed up and set her indoor mile record.
Men have always played an important role in Francie’s life. She trains daily with the men at UCLA and is the only woman competitor in the Pacific Coast Track Club. She manages to be a pal to her male cohorts without sacrificing any of her femininity. Once at a track meet an official asked her to prove she was a woman. The question is raised because some international competitors are suspected of using hormones to improve their performances. Francie Larrieu—5’4″, 105 lbs., shoulder-length hair and trimly cut warm-up suit—looked the official in the eye. “What’s the matter,” she replied incredulously, “are you blind?”