The world’s second-ranked male 1,500-meter runner guns to be No. 1, but marriage and medicine count, too
It’s not unusual at a track meet for an exhausted distance runner to stagger across the finish line and collapse into the sweaty arms of another competitor. Even in this day of the upfront athlete, however, one doesn’t expect the two jocks to murmur “Liebling, Liebling” to each other and exchange congratulatory (or consoling) kisses. But at least Ellen and Thomas Wessinghage are married. Though that’s a recent development since the West German track stars—whose relationship is racy in more ways than one—have been wed only 12 months, which is about two months longer than their son, Daniel, has been around and about three years less than they were involved in a sort of romantic relay.
Marriage in any event hasn’t cramped their running style. Thomas, who also found time to finish his medical degree at the University of Mainz last July, managed in his off time to become the world’s second-ranked 1,500-meter runner and to beat the world’s outdoor mile record holder, New Zealand’s John Walker, in three of four 1977 meets. Last month, at 25, he rang up his first sub-four-minute (3:59.7) indoor mile, at L.A.’s Sunkist Invitational, beating the 1,500-meter world record holder, Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi. Ellen, who formerly held the 1,000-meter record and was West Germany’s top female athlete in 1975, took 18 months off from track and law school, also at Mainz, to have Daniel. But in her first race since, she finished second in the mile at the same meet to U.S. star Francie Larrieu.
Such togetherness, in the high-class company they’ve been keeping on the American winter circuit, is not so easy to come by. At least not so easy as one might think to see the Wessinghages horsing around after a workout at the UCLA track, feeding the baby pretzels at Santa Monica pier or feeding their own flapjack addiction at their favorite U.S. chain, the House of Pancakes. (Though an M.D., he thinks pills and protein diets are overrated.) “When you’re a runner,” says Thomas matter-of-factly, “you must have discipline to train every day, no matter what the weather. You learn to concentrate on a goal.”
For the Wessinghages, that ought to be goals, with a capital “A” for ambition, inasmuch as they have been pursuing their mutual track careers, his future in orthopedics and her law diploma—as well as each other—since they met at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where both ran for West Germany. “At Munich we barely knew each other,” says Thomas. “I was too old for him then,” laughs Ellen, who at 29 has four years on her husband. Actually, she soon began dating another German miler, Karl-Heinz Wellmann, whom she married in December 1973.
Theirs was not the solidest of liaisons, however, and when Thomas and Ellen found themselves together at a dual meet against Canada in Montreal in 1975, with Wellmann six time zones away, romance overtook them despite their avowed resistance. “We tried to keep our distance,” says Ellen soberly, “but it didn’t work.” “A fuse had been lighted,” chips in Thomas, “and it wouldn’t go out.” His English is unaccented, and good enough for him to send up pop music lyrics. “The next year was a hard time for all three of us,” Ellen adds. “We talked it over and we all agreed that it was best for me to marry Thomas, but not till after the Montreal Olympics.” (She did, in March 1977, and Daniel was born May 1.)
Those ’76 Games added irony to the situation. Thomas had run poorly in 1972 but was a favorite for a medal four years later. Then he relaxed in the stretch run of the 1,500-meter semis without looking behind. Three runners sailed past, and he was out of the finals. “At first I was disappointed,” he says, his smile fading at the recollection. “But the next day, when I had to watch the finals, run by competitors whom I had beaten before, I was really depressed. I wanted to be away somewhere—in the forests or the fields—but I went to the meet because I had self-discipline. You have to face what you have done and start anew,” he philosophizes. “It was a great failure, but I learned from it.” Part of the lesson was that Ellen’s titular husband, Karl-Heinz, unexpectedly showed him up by copping the bronze medal in the 1,500. “I was so happy,” reports Ellen. “I had felt so guilty that I might have ruined his chances. There are no hostile feelings anymore,” she adds. “Karl-Heinz even comes to visit us.”
The Wessinghages now have a one-bedroom apartment in Gimsheim, a village of some 2,000 across the Rhine from Mainz. Ellen, née Ellen Tittle, was born in East Germany but moved west with her family—clandestinely—while still an infant. “I was a gymnast,” she recalls, “but that was too boring for me. The club wasn’t well organized. I saw athletes running, and that looked like more fun.” After taking up track 12 years ago, she won some 35 national titles at distances from 800 to 3,000 meters. Favored to get a medal in the 1,500 at Munich, she dropped out in the final lap with piercing stomach pains—brought on in part, she thinks, by distress over the murders of the Israeli athletes. An injured Achilles tendon hobbled her at the 1976 Olympics, but she still came in seventh.
Thomas took to the ropes, bars and rings when he was 9, in Hannover. “It was my parents’ idea to give me exercise,” he says. “Later I played tennis for two or three years, but track and field looked more thrilling.” He joined the Tus Nammen club in 1966 and by 1971 was one of Germany’s top runners. Though Track and Field News has ranked him No. 2 worldwide at 1,500 meters for the past two years, Wessinghage has been much less of a household name Stateside than Bayi and Walker. He plans to change that—his year of internship in Mainz permitting—by challenging them on the outdoor circuit this summer.
Hospital duties or no, he plans to make time for the 1980 Olympics, too. “I’ll be in my prime then,” he’s convinced. Ellen, however, is dropping back into law school this semester to finish her degree and plans to put it to use. So she’ll turn her energy to “running for fun”—not forgetting the Bonn government’s Trimmdich (“Get in Shape”) program—and to biking. “We’re both crazy about cycling,” says Ellen. “I rode a bike until the day before Daniel was born. Now Father will run in the forest”—there’s one within a 1,000-meter run of their apartment—”while Mommy and Daniel ride a bike.”