By William Plummer
March 25, 1996 12:00 PM

FEW PEOPLE HAD ANY IDEA WHO she was. For mile after mile at the Feb. 10 Olympic Marathon Trials in Columbia, S.C., she was simply “the girl with the pony tail.” Then, on the hill at mile 16, Jenny Spangler made her move. She threw down a 5:20 mile, leaving prerace favorites Anne Marie Lauck and Linda Somers in her dust. “Who is that?” the astonished Somers reportedly asked Lauck. “I don’t know,” said Lauck, “but she sure looks good.”

She did indeed. In one of the most extraordinary comebacks in the history of U.S. running, Spangler, 32, burst from 13 years of obscurity to win the Trials and earn a spot at this summer’s Atlanta Olympics. She had startled the running world once before. In 1983, Spangler, just 19, won the first marathon she’d ever entered, in Duluth, Minn. But she was never able to win another major race. “I was smiling to myself during the Trials,” she says. “I was thinking NBC must be going nuts. I knew they didn’t have any bios on me. I could just see them scrambling for information.”

Spangler’s bio, in fact, goes to the heart of her frustrating running career. She grew up in Rockford, Ill., the second of three kids of manufacturing engineer Carl Spangler and his wife, Helen, a school-board office manager. “Jenny wasn’t laid-back about anything she did,” says Carl. “She did everything to be the best.” She went out for track at Rockford Guilford High and by the end of her sophomore year was the school’s top distance runner—but at a cost. A growing perfectionism, and a fear of failure, would make her so tense before meets that she couldn’t sleep. Sometimes she would break out in hives. “I don’t know where the need to be perfect came from,” says Spangler. “I’ve just always had it. Sometimes I’d be so nervous that I wouldn’t want to race.”

At the University of Iowa, running consumed her—taking precedence over schoolwork and her boyfriend Tom Gesell. If she had a bad workout, she would be in a foul mood—even if she’d just aced an exam. “When I was out dancing,” says Spangler, “I’d feel guilty because I wasn’t training.”

Her expectations soared after the Duluth race. She ran her second marathon in January 1984 and placed second, but instead of taking satisfaction in her performance, she trained even harder to make up for her “poor time.” The result: a stress fracture led to a broken left foot at the 1984 Olympic trials and left her limping across the finish line in 33rd place.

Over the next few years, Spangler turned her attention elsewhere—and fared little better. In 1986 she married Gesell, moved to North Carolina, and took a job as a data-entry programmer. Feeling lonely without her family and disappointed in her job, she tried to focus on her running but slipped into a funk when that didn’t go well either. She entered the 1988 Olympic trials but was finished before she started. “It was like I didn’t care anymore,” says Spangler, who came in 49th. “I was just burned-out on life.”

After that she put her running shoes in the closet. “I felt like my dream was lost forever,” says Spangler, who would eventually lose her marriage as well. She moved to Alabama and got an M.B.A. from Samford University, then returned to Illinois and took a job as a programmer-analyst for an insurance company in Lake Forest. While going through her divorce from Gesell, she started running again, just for fun.

But with Spangler, hardly anything stayed just for fun very long. In June 1994 she took a leave to train in Iowa City. Sure enough, she suffered another stress fracture—and another descent into melancholy. Last July she returned to the Chicago area.

Two days later she received the phone call that would change her life. Willie Rios, then a public defender cum running coach, said he was training four other women for the Trials and wrondered if she’d like to join them. Rios was just what she needed. He built up her strength and gave her a running strategy. Above all, Rios—who cooks up a secret pasta recipe for his runners every Wednesday night—helped her relax. Says Spangler: “Willie said, ‘I’m still going to love you, even if you don’t run a good race.’ ”

Rios says he knew last October that Spangler was going to finish in the top three at the Trials. But he’s sorry she won. “I would have preferred her finishing—in a mousy sort of way—in third place,” he says. “That way there’d be no pressure in Atlanta.”

Spangler, though, isn’t worried. She is enjoying her life in Gurnee, Ill., with her boyfriend of two years, Miki Tosic, 39, and his 8-year-old daughter, Kristina. She believes she has a chance to medal at the Olympics. Besides, she says, “running’s not the only thing in life. I see that now. I love all of my life—my coach, Miki, Kristina. I finally have the full package.”